A Placemaking Journal

Where Thinking About the End is a Good Place to Begin

In this time of increasing uncertainty, of trepidation about what the future holds for ourselves, our families, our communities, wouldn’t it be great if there were something we could absolutely count on? Something we could predict with 100 percent confidence no matter who we are or where we live or what particular challenges lie ahead?

Well, brothers and sisters, I bring you good news. Actually, not news and not necessarily good in the strictest sense. More of a reminder. Here it is: We’re all going to die.

Later, rather than sooner, we all hope. But, eventually, that’s where we’re headed. That we need to be regularly reminded of that fact, especially in an age in which we’re invited to believe facts are negotiable, is testimony to our capacity for denial. Bless our hearts.

I reintroduce this reminder into the community planning conversation for reasons of timeliness. We’ve talked before about the geezer glut and the unkickable can of demography. What’s new is that the sense of urgency for taking inevitability under really serious consideration is escalating, along with the precision with which we can predict what’s coming. Take, for example, projections from the December, 2016 report from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS):

Over the next twenty years, the population aged 65 and over is expected to grow from 48 million to 79 million. Meanwhile, the number of households headed by someone in that age group will increase by 66 percent to almost 50 million—with the result that by 2035, an astounding one out of three American households will be headed by someone 65 or older.

So far, our collective responses to stats like these have moved in unhelpful directions. Two obvious ones: the rapid expansion of an industry of aging denial selling products and processes to recapture youth; and panic attacks that threaten to metastasize into planning paralysis. Fortunately, there’s a silver lining in the “silver tsunami.” Facing scary stuff that’s also inevitable tends to clarify the landscape for decision-making. (As Dr. Samuel Johnson noted back in the 18th century, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”)

Among drill-down stats from the JCHS report likely to concentrate our minds, are these:

By 2035, there will be 9.3 million one-person households aged 80 or over, representing 57 percent of households in that age group. Living alone can present particular challenges at older ages, as single-person households have lower incomes and higher rates of disabilities, and must seek supports and care from outside the home rather than from a spouse or other live-in family. These households are more likely to pay for care than their married counterparts, despite more limited resources.

Plus this:

(Though) long-term care in the home is typically less expensive than care in group quarters, many in-home solutions are beyond the reach of even moderate- and middle-income homeowners as well as most renters. Paying for just two months of a home health aide or assisted living would exhaust the savings of a typical older renter (whose median assets are $6,150). With non-housing assets of $103,200, the median older owner could afford over 2 years of a home health aide or assisted living care without dipping into home equity. Yet more than 9 million older homeowners have less than $50,000 in non-housing assets. Clearly, costs will pose challenges for many who will need to secure paid help to remain in their homes.

And this:

In addition, the sheer growth in the older population will result in a greater number of low-income older adults. While roughly 15 million older adults earned less than 80 percent of their area median incomes in 2015, by 2035 this group will reach 27 million. The number of older renters earning 50 percent or less of their area median incomes, the threshold at which those aged 62 or over are generally eligible for federal rental assistance, will grow to 7.6 million. Currently, only 36 percent of those who qualify receive benefits (roughly 1.4 out of 4 million households), suggesting that even if subsidies could be expanded to serve the same percentage of those eligible in 2035, there would still be a gap of 4.9 million left to need housing on the open market.


If we view these worrisome projections as part of the giant hairball of challenges ahead for local and regional planning, it’s not hard to recognize what binds them together. Over time, we have created — or at least defaulted to — a society organized mainly to serve folks between the ages of 18 and the mid-fifties who can depend on sufficient wealth to insulate them from unexpected economic and medical hardships, including those arising from the inconveniences of mortality. Everything from land use planning to health care policy to housing finance is aligned with those default settings. Which also suggests that strategies we’ve involved to disentangle the hairball and better align planning strategies to achieve better outcomes for more people, will help defuse the demographic time bomb.

So let’s do more of what seems to work.

We might pay special attention to housing policy, since all its various components — including affordability, integrated land use/transportation planning, health and wellbeing — intersect with just about every challenge for coping with an aging population. The JCHS report makes that point:

Though mobility rates for older adults are low, applying today’s rate of annual moves by tenure, race, and 5-year age bands to Joint Center household projections yields over 825,000 older households moving into owned homes and 1.6 million older households moving into rented homes in 2035. While many of these moves will be to existing housing, there will be sufficient demand for new housing as well. Locating new, accessible housing in town centers will allow older residents to live within walking distance of services in their existing communities, though such housing will likely require zoning changes in many locations.

It’s more than just the policy wonks singing that tune. Among the encouraging mainstream media responses to the JCHS study is Allison Arieff’s excellent January 28 piece in The New York Times. Here’s how she wraps her argument:

(Suburban) homes were originally designed, and for the most part still are, for young families — and for drivers. They are typically surrounded by other single-family houses. Lacking a fitter partner or a network of helpful neighbors and caring family members, older residents can end up feeling isolated, unable to do basic errands or keep up their property. Further, most suburbs are zoned to prevent any non-single-family housing from being built, whether multiunit projects or the seemingly benign granny flat.

We’ve got to change this paradigm.

Can I get an amen?

Ben Brown

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