The United States is facing an aging crisis of unprecedented proportions. Advances in health care and medicine continue to increase our longevity, such that by 2050 the number of US residents aged 65 and over will have doubled. Nearly one-third of our population is over the age of 50, and our median age is its highest ever. 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 every day between now and 2030.
While the statistics are daunting, it is not the process of aging that drives us out of our homes – it’s our homes that drive us out of our homes. How our homes were sited, designed, constructed, and operated decades ago did not consider our future needs and abilities. For example, falls—many of which can be prevented by home modifications—are the leading cause of unintentional injury deaths for adults 65 or older in the United States, with 25,464 deaths documented in 2013.
These challenges should serve as a call-to-arms for the affordable housing community. And yet, we have been slow to respond. Over the last twenty-five years we have embraced environmental sustainability and radically re-thought the design, construction, and maintenance of our buildings. However, in the race to “go green,” what are we doing for the silent majority who are slowly, but unequivocally, going silver as well?
The design of environments that welcome people of all ages and abilities is essential to the creation of socially sustainable communities. Nowhere is this more critical than in residential environments for seniors who rely on environmental cues and supports to compensate for declining or variable sensory, motoric, and cognitive abilities. For example, in multi-family housing, community space for residents can be an important contributor to health, particularly for seniors and residents with limited mobility who cannot easily leave the building. Designing community space for meaningful uses and social interaction, such as a garden or library, can create opportunities for increased physical and mental well-being.
We feel strongly that everyone should live in a home that accommodates their needs, where thoughtful, human-centered design can have a lasting effect on their health, happiness, prolonged independence, and emotional well-being. Aging is not an excuse for housing instability.
Over the past three years, Enterprise Community Partners has published resources for the creation of healthy, affordable housing that will allow residents to age in their communities. These include the 2015 Enterprise Green Communities Criteria and 2012 Universal Design Specifications.
As we continue to look to the future, Enterprise is developing a tool to address aging in the built environment through Aging in Place Principles, to be released in 2016. While it will not solve all of the aging-related issues our country is facing, we hope this resource will be a first step in creating housing that is more responsive, and supportive of the physical, sensory, cognitive, and socio-emotional needs of a population that is outliving their housing stock.
 T. Hancock, “People, Partnerships, and Human Progress: Building Community Capital,” Health Promotion International 16 (2001): 275–280.