As more Americans live longer, it is becoming increasingly evident that the country is ill-prepared to help them lead healthy, independent lives.
We are falling short in two areas: We are not doing enough to help older Americans live in a safe and financially secure manner in their own homes, and we are not providing enough supportive housing for those who need that alternative.
The numbers can’t be denied.
“Greater longevity and population growth mean that the number of households in their 70s, 80s and 90s is set to soar,” reads a 2018 Harvard University report. The report noted the number of households age 80 and over increased by a whopping 71 percent from 4.4 million in 1990 to 7.5 million in 2016.
“With the aging of the baby boomers, the number of households in this age group will more than double by 2037,” the Harvard researchers wrote.
That will put added stress on a care system that is already on the verge of being overwhelmed. About 25 million Americans “aging in place” in their own homes already need help with regular daily activities, either from visiting professionals or assistance devices such as canes, raised toilets or shower seats.
Many, however, don’t get the help they need. A Johns Hopkins study released last week noted that nearly 60 percent of senior citizens with “compromised mobility” reported staying inside their homes rather than leaving the house; 25 percent said they often remained in bed.
“The reality is that most of us, as we age, will require help at one point or another,” Bruce Chernoff, chairman of the 2013 federal Commission on Long-Term Care, told the Washington Post. “We need to lean in much harder if we want to help seniors thrive at home as much as possible.”
One key problem is that Medicare doesn’t pay for the types of non-medical devices that help people live safely their homes, from raised toilet seats and shower grab bars to special food utensils and clothes designed to be put on and taken off easily.
These items can make a huge difference in the life of someone living alone at home. But they are often priced out of reach.
One solution, of course, would be to help senior citizens move to supportive or assisted housing. Massachusetts, however, is in the middle of a housing crisis, with too few units of any kinds of housing being built.
“Affordable, accessible housing located in age-friendly communities and linked to health supports is in particularly short supply,” the Harvard researchers wrote in their report. “Demand for these units will only increase when the baby boomers start to turn 80 in less than a decade. And whether they own or rent, millions of older households struggle to pay for their housing and other basic necessities, and their numbers are rising.”
Sadly, housing for senior citizens — affordable or not — is as likely to be opposed by NIMBY-minded neighbors as any other project. For proof, one needs only look to Wenham, where a group of neighbors has sued to stop 12 units of affordable senior housing proposed by Beverly-based Harborlight Community Partners.
Thus far, the solutions offered have been modest or non-existent. Last year’s federal CHRONIC Care Act, allowed Medicare Advantage plans to offer supplemental benefits for assistance including wheelchair ramps, transportation and personal care, but it’s unclear how extensive the relief will be. This year’s plans don’t offer much, and the 39 million people covered by traditional Medicare get none of those benefits.
Locally, Massachusetts still struggles to build new housing, with Gov. Charlie Baker noting last week that “if you can’t produce housing, you can’t solve any of our problems.''
“The problem gets worse every year that goes by and we don’t do something about it,” the governor said. He was referencing housing in general, but he may have well been talking about the looming crisis in housing for senior citizens.