Social Security and access to affordable healthcare are clearly key areas that directly benefit older Americans, but there are plenty of overlooked quality-of-life issues that could make an incredible impact on older Americans, such as age-friendly housing and community development.
President Biden has continued to announce nominations for various federal agency positions. In March, the Department of Housing and Urban Development welcomed Marcia Fudge as its newest secretary. Earlier this month, the president nominated Damon Smith as general counsel of this agency, a role that focuses on affordable housing, achievable homeownership and resourceful urban planning. Smith was acting general counsel during the Obama administration.
The nomination comes as housing prices soar, a significant portion of the population grays and at least 15 million Americans 65 and older live at or below 200% of the federal poverty line (or $26,000 a year for a single individual in 2021).
“Housing in America needs to be reinvented for different age demographics,” said Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, which focuses on and promotes awareness for longevity issues. “That is a big ask and it is a big project, but it is one of those things that with national leadership understanding the realities, it could make an incredible difference.”
One of the top priorities of HUD, short for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, at least in terms of benefiting older Americans, would be to fix the shortage of affordable housing in urban and rural areas. This would include simplifying the financing process, reimagining zoning and addressing homelessness, which impacts many elderly adults.
Another problem: home design. Many Americans want to age in place — not in a nursing home, assisted living facility or other institution — but only 3.5% of U.S. homes have the basic universal design elements older Americans would need to accomplish this, such as no-step entrances, single-floor living and extra-wide doors and hallways, according to a Milken Institute report called “Age-Forward Cities for 2030.”
“We create incentives as we should for environmental adaptations and the reimagination of the auto fleet and trucking fleet,” Irving said. “There are often tax credits and other incentives for solar power or more energy-efficient devices. So why not have policies that incentivize builders and those involved in the reconstruction and design of existing properties to be age-friendly and more usable and effective for a different demographic?”
There are myriad ways to be more age-inclusive in the community, which would benefit all generations, Irving said. For example: Curb cuts at the corners of every street. This tiny detail in urban planning hasn’t been just helpful for people with wheelchairs, but those using strollers, little children too small to lift their feet above steps, and others with mobility issues. “We have to think about all of the needs,” said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation.
Changes would be welcomed in many aspects of everyday living, such as transportation, access to groceries and healthcare or more centrally-located parks, Ryerson said.
Influential leaders, be it on the federal or local level, should also be sure to incorporate the voices of differing demographics during urban planning, Ryerson said.
“As we are calling together community members to think of community design that supports connection, I think the leaders of that process have to really look and listen around the room to the group they’re creating,” Ryerson said. “We have to take time to take steps back and see who isn’t represented here, who is missing from the design dialogue?”