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Housing and Policy in an Aging America

Harvard Graduate School of Design
Cambridge, Massachusetts
March 6, 2017

Lots of us are getting old, and fast. At the same time, our dwellings and the situations that most of us live in are not cut out for living with dignity in old age. While this is a challenge in the United States, it is an even bigger issue globally, especially for the poor.

A panel sponsored by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies and the GSD Department of Urban Planning and Design reasoned that if we start paying attention to the challenge now, societies will be better prepared when the full weight of aging populations reaches its peak by 2035.

“Are you looking forward to old age?” Emi Kiyota, Harvard Loeb Fellow and founder of the nonprofit elder-care organization Ibasho, asked attendees, evoking realities such as difficulty navigating stairs, disruptive hospital stays, isolation, and institutionalized nursing home living. The numbers bear out the scale of the challenge: One in five Americans will be over 65 by 2035, health and elder-care costs already represent 20 percent of the US economy, and fewer than one in four dwellings have all the physical features suited to aging in place.

Steering the conversation toward solutions, the panelists offered alternative models: tele-medical care, granny flats, multi­generational cohousing, socialization-focused group homes, and community integration support programs that are more than just care-delivery services. The ideal, they agreed, is to age in place, with in-home support. But what steps can we take to get there? Upgrading our existing housing stock will take a long time and comes at a high cost. Most new residential construction is suitable, but current production rates are too low. Perhaps, as was suggested as the discussion drew to a close, in an era of high demand, we just need better policies — primarily, relief of residential zoning restrictions — to encourage more new housing in general.