A recently released report from Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies asserts that the United States is inadequately equipped to accommodate and provide adequate care for the increasing number of older individuals as the population ages. The findings emphasize the pressing need for attention and action in addressing this issue.
Michael Genaldi found himself on the path to homelessness earlier this year after a car collided with the back of his motorcycle, fracturing three ribs and plunging him into a month-long coma.
At 58, he not only lost his job as a machine operator but also his home, eventually resorting to living in his truck. To compound his challenges, Genaldi was diagnosed with stage 2 lung cancer. Too young to get Social Security, he now lives temporarily in a shelter for people 55 and older in Phoenix while he navigates the process of qualifying for disability payments.
Without enough government help, “many older adults will have to forgo needed care or rely on family and friends for assistance,” warned Jennifer Molinsky, project director of the center’s Housing an Aging Society Program. Many, like Genaldi, will become homeless.
Molinsky suggested that increased governmental assistance could significantly improve support for the rising number of older Americans, particularly the baby boomers born after World War II.
According to the report, in 2021, federal housing assistance programs like Section 8 or Section 202, which offer housing with supportive services like cleaning, cooking, and transportation for older individuals, were only adequate for slightly over one-third of the 5.9 million eligible renters aged 62 and over.
The report emphasizes the current demand for innovative solutions to accommodate individuals with fixed or diminishing incomes and inadequate savings. Consider alternative housing arrangements such as house or apartment sharing to reduce costs instead of living independently. Explore options like accessory dwelling units (ADUs) commonly referred to as casitas, granny flats, and in-law units. Additionally, there are cohousing communities where individual homes, including tiny homes, are organized around a shared space like a dining room.
In the coming decade, the U.S. population aged 75 and older is projected to surge by 45%, rising from 17 million to almost 25 million. A significant portion of this demographic is anticipated to face financial challenges. The report highlights that in 2021, nearly 11.2 million older adults experienced "cost burden," indicating that they allocated more than 30% of their income towards housing expenses.
Sunbelt regions, traditionally favored for retirement, such as Las Vegas, San Diego, Raleigh in North Carolina, and Miami and Daytona Beach in Florida, exhibited some of the highest rates of cost burden among renters aged 65 and older.
Similar to renters, numerous older homeowners face challenges in maintaining stable housing.
According to the report, mortgage debt among older adults is on the rise, witnessing a substantial increase. The median mortgage debt for homeowners aged 65 to 79 has surged over 400%, escalating from $21,000 in 1989 to $110,000 in 2022. This surge is attributed to a growing necessity for accessing funds to meet basic needs and care expenses.
Navigating the aging process is made more difficult for many older adults who struggle to access the necessary additional services, especially considering the average costs of long-term care exceeding $100 per day.
According to the report, households of older individuals from communities of color, particularly Black and Latino households, are significantly more prone to experiencing cost burdens compared to older white households. Additionally, older individuals living alone face a higher likelihood of being cost burdened, with 47% of solitary households compared to 21% of married or partnered couples.
Following the breakdown of her marriage, 56-year-old Angelita Saldaña found herself homeless in Phoenix. As the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, Saldaña initially resorted to living in her truck alongside her pet dog Gaspar. However, both she and Gaspar currently reside at the 60-bed shelter where Genaldi also stays, accompanied by his pet dog Chico.
Saldaña expressed that her monthly disability check of $941 falls short of covering the cost of a studio apartment in the area, where average rents commence at approximately $1,200. A caseworker is currently assisting her in the search for a more affordable housing option.
In the meantime, Saldaña has secured a motel room with a private bathroom for her use.
"Here, I can sleep good," she said, in contrast to the months she spent at the state's largest shelter in downtown Phoenix, which boasts ten times the number of beds.
Lisa Glow, the CEO of Central Arizona Shelter Services, overseeing both facilities, highlighted that older people do much better in a shelter designed with their needs in mind — including more space, limited stairs and wider doorways for wheelchairs.
Glow shared the story of an 82-year-old man with dementia who faced difficulties sleeping on a bunk bed at the downtown shelter until he was relocated. The staff proactively located his family and facilitated his transfer to a skilled nursing facility, ensuring he received more personalized and appropriate care.
“The downtown shelter is not a good place for an aging adult with chronic conditions,” said Glow. “We see a lot of people there in their 70s and 80s.”
“I’ve been shocked to see so many seniors on the street,” she added. “People with wheelchairs. People with walkers.”