Housing New Hampshire’s Seniors

senior-woman-845522_1920As the country’s Baby Boomers continue to age, New Hampshire in particular will be facing a housing challenge brought on by the so-called “silver tsunami.” Currently, New Hampshire has the fourth oldest median population in the country. Our population of people aged 60 and older is projected to grow so that by 2025 they will occupy one in three housing units in the state. As the state’s demographics shift, we will have to decide how to best create affordable housing for a generation that will require more services, often on a fixed income.

The Challenge of Aging in Place

It was once assumed that seniors would want to downsize once they retire; however, the data indicate this isn’t happening. According to American Community Survey data for the Northeast, only 3% of seniors move annually, compared to 55% of people aged 18-46. AARP surveyed the nation’s population of people aged 45+, and the majority of seniors indicated they would prefer to stay in their current home as long as possible.

Although seniors are holding off on downsizing, there are real limits to seniors aging in place. Forty-two percent of the state’s seniors have at least one significant disability, and one in six seniors living in conventional housing report difficulty living independently. The majority of New Hampshire homes and rentals are older buildings with multiple floors. They don’t usually have characteristics like a first-floor bedroom and bathroom, wide doors, or a step-free entrance that would help seniors stay in a home longer.

The rural characteristics of the state are also a challenge to seniors’ desire to age in place for as long as possible. With more than three-quarters of New Hampshire seniors living in the suburbs or rural communities, service delivery can be expensive and challenging, and a lack of public transportation limits their mobility.

Most (77%) senior households aged 65 and older in New Hampshire own their home rather than rent. Many of these seniors live in large houses. About 57% of the housing units in the state have three or more bedrooms. Many senior households, which tend to have only one or two people and would be better served by smaller units, will eventually be forced to downsize due to the physical and the financial challenges of maintaining a large home, despite their wishes to age in place.

Beyond Age-Restricted Housing

Most housing that seniors live in is not age restricted and creating more age-restricted housing is a popular option, but it is only part of the solution. Another option is to move forward with “lifetime” housing. Existing housing can be rehabilitated using lifetime design principles to ensure that existing units are not lost to deterioration and so they can accommodate an aging population. Also, new housing can be designed with these features in mind so residents who will become seniors can age in place longer.

Creating smaller housing units is another option that can help seniors age in their communities. Allowing new construction of smaller units, ideally near services or public transportation, can increase options for seniors when they need to downsize. For much of the state, modifying zoning regulations to allow accessory dwelling units, commonly called “mother-in-law apartments,” could be an effective strategy to increase the number of smaller units. Local regulations often inhibit the development of smaller housing units. The result has been a lack of smaller homes and affordable rental units available to the baby boomers as they age or young households as they start out. Allowing accessory dwelling units and smaller new homes can help seniors age in place within their communities.

The state will also have to find creative solutions to the challenges of providing services for seniors, who don’t always live close to services or have access to public transportation. Privately funded service providers will respond to the needs of clients who can afford the delivery of services in a scattered environment. This may mitigate some of the need for age-restricted housing developments; however, publicly funded and nonprofit service providers will likely struggle to meet demand for those on fixed incomes due to funding challenges. Age-restricted housing developments consolidate seniors in order to provide affordable centralized services, but since seniors represent only a portion of the need for smaller units and will age in place as long as possible, there may not be sufficient demand for age-restricted housing to make it economically sustainable in many small communities. So encouraging lifetime housing that is not limited to such a small portion of the market may be the best way to provide housing choice.

Retaining younger residents through creating new, smaller units of affordable workforce housing will also be vital as caregivers are the single largest source of support for aging in place. It is predicted that in the next 15 years, the caregiver ratio will drop from seven potential family caregivers for every person over age 80 to only four.

Although a focus on flexible zoning, retaining people of caregiving age, and providing service-enhanced housing can help seniors age in place as long as possible, seniors will ultimately reach a stage where they can no longer live independently and will need around-the-clock care. New Hampshire’s current nursing home occupancy rate is at 100%, and demand for beds is expected to rise from 7,000 today to over 11,000 by 2025. While additional supports for aging in place may help stem this number, it cannot be ignored that additional long term care and assisted housing options will be a key factor in housing seniors late in their lives.