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Forget millennials: Seniors are poised to reshape the housing market

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As baby boomers age, will they change the paradigm of older adult housing?

The new Morningside Heights community center, designed by Hollwich Kushner Architects and Wagner Interior Design & Consulting, is meant to help seniors age in place.
Michael Moran/Courtesy Hollwich Kushner Architects

For Sydney Weinberg, a 78-year-old living on her own in New York City, the idea of moving after retirement didn’t really make sense.

After all, unlike some of her peers, many of whom have relocated to warmer climates or assisted-care facilities, Weinberg has deep roots—she’s spent the last 60 years in Morningside Heights, a residential neighborhood in northwest Manhattan near Columbia University, raising her family.

She opened up about her life at the opening of the new community center for the Morningside Retirement & Health Services (MRHS), a sleek gathering and group-activity space for older residents, like Weinberg, who live in the adjacent Morningside Gardens co-op apartments, a complex of six high-rises.

A former history professor with multiple degrees from Columbia, Weinberg is part of the neighborhood’s unique community of older adult residents, one designated a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community by the city.

Weinberg and her friends love their new community space. Designed by Hollwich Kushner Architects and Wagner Interior Design & Consulting, the airy gathering place—with its floor-to-ceiling wood paneling, light-filled interior, and bright green-and-yellow curtains—resembles a tech company's meeting space or a dorm's common room. The wraparound handrail built into the walls and non-slip, cushioned rubber flooring signify the interiors as a space designed for older adult.

A close-up of the railing at the new MRHS community center
Michael Moran/Courtesy Hollwich Kushner Architects

For Weinberg, the MRHS—which is celebrating its 50th anniversary—and the friendships formed and supported here through events and programming have been her lifeline. When her husband died last year, she was sustained by longtime friends, buoyed by the community, and even offered needed assistance. She says she couldn’t have stayed here without their help.

“If it wasn’t for this place, staying in this neighborhood, on my own, would have been impossible,” she says.

A million-dollar project supported by state funding and community capital grants steered by city assembly member Daniel O’Donnell, this new resource center is an investment in helping residents like Weinberg live at home. It’s also an example of how architects, designers, nonprofits, and social-service agencies are promoting the idea of aging in place.

For the architect, Matthias Hollwich, an expert in designing for older adults and aging communities, the real issues facing Weinberg and her peers are social connection and engagement.

“In this country, we create fancy nursing homes, ship people there, and everybody there is old,” he says. “It’s segregated. People have lost the connection to their community and have to reinvent their communities, which is hard in a place with so much turnover and new arrivals. This Morningside Heights project shows how the future of aging-in-place should really happen: more social and more integrated.”

Hollwich, who wrote a book on the subject, New Aging, last year, is one of many architects, designers, and researchers trying to increase conversation about how we design for old age and how we plan on taking care of a growing number of senior citizens. Demographically, the time to talk is now.

Resident’s at the opening party at MRHS last week
Patrick Sisson

According to the latest report from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, Projections and Implications for Housing a Growing Population: Older Households 2015-2035, the number of Americans over 80 will double, from 6 million to 12 million, in the next two decades. And by 2035, one out of three U.S. households will be headed by someone over 65. That’s 79 million Americans, or slightly less than the population of Turkey.

Today’s parents or grandparents will be part of a historically large surge in the senior population poised to transform the housing market, and, according to many caregivers, architects, and researchers, challenge our system of low-income assistance. More broadly, this surge may change our attitudes toward aging. Solutions will require not only more support from state and local governments, but also a rethink of how we design spaces for this population.

“We can’t go back in time and recreate the social glue between families,” Hollwich says. “What we can do is come up with a new idea of family, and design spaces that allow for neighbors to have the same kind of emotional responses as family members. Half of nursing home residents are there because of social deficits and the loss of their social net, not because of health issues; we need to find ways to help them connect."

This new architecture of old age requires two big shifts in how society supports seniors: better financial aid and more robust services, along with more thoughtful and adaptive design.

According to Jennifer Molinsky, a senior research assistant at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, one of the biggest challenges is helping those seniors able to stay in their homes continue to do so. When older adults move, whether for financial or health reasons, they lose connections to their communities, which has significant health impacts over time.

Giving seniors the opportunity and resources to stay in their homes not only preserves an important social safety net, but also reduces costs over time. Research from HUD shows that expenditures for nursing homes are more than three times those for noninstitutional long-term care services, and rates continue to rise.

“I think as the older baby boomers approach 80, we’ll start seeing much more conversation about senior housing,” says Molinsky. “The issues raised in the report become much more salient after 80, since the disability rates start to rise sharply, and the need for care in the home starts to rise sharply.”

The coming rise in the senior population may stretch an already-strained support system for low-income adults, as well. According to Molinsky, the U.S. only serves about a third of adults 62 or older who qualify for housing and rental assistance. If we continue to serve just a third, by 2035, we’ll have nearly 5 million people who are eligible who aren’t receiving aid.

Molinsky says that many states and municipalities are beginning to adapt and anticipate the challenge, whether it’s by offering aid for seniors who want to retrofit their home with more safety features; pushing urban design guidelines promoting safer, more accessible, and walkable streets; or funding services that aid seniors living at home.

Pima County, Arizona, signed an ordinance for inclusive home design that mandated “visitability” for new homes, meaning every home needed at least one entrance that was zero-step. Vermont’s Department of Disabilities, Aging, and Independent Living requires developers to build new housing with universal design principles, and the state’s SASH network, through a network of nonprofits, gives older adults links to health care and support services. H.O.M.E. (Housing Opportunities & Maintenance for the Elderly), a Chicago nonprofit, connects independent seniors with support staff and repairmen to help fix and upgrade their homes.

At the federal level, H.R. 5254, the Senior Accessible Housing Act, which has only been introduced in committee, proposes a personal tax credit of up to $30,000 for those aged 60 and over who want to modify their homes for safe, comfortable, and independent living.

While community and cost savings have led many to push for independent living for seniors, there is still a significant population in nursing homes: 1.3 million Americans, according to the Institute on Aging. Many architects see an opportunity, as baby boomers get older, to redefine how these spaces look and how they support their residents.

Ron Bruno, who runs the MRHS, sees designs, such as the Hollwich/Wagner plan for his organization’s new community center, as part of what’s hopefully a larger shift toward better design for older adults.

“It challenges the view of old people as needing not much more than leftovers, dark rooms, and afghans,” he says. “People do have preconceived notions; I look at the cartoons my kids watch. Seniors are shown as either an old person needing assistance or some grouchy old man.”

Rockwood Retirement Living in Spokane, Washington
Benjamin Benschneider/Courtesy Perkins Eastman
Rockwood Retrirement Living
Benjamin Benschneider/Courtesy Perkins Eastman

For Hollwich, the layout of the space showcases what he calls social architecture 2.0. It’s about creating space for connections. After passing through the check-in area at the lobby, residents can hold events, meetups, and art lessons in a variety of spaces, with seating and different spaces meant to hold large and small groups.

This description of the MRHS community center, one step away from terms such as “break-out spaces” and open floor plans, may seem cliched. But according to architect McCall Wood, it shows an embrace of good design, no matter what the age of the resident. Wood, along with her colleague at the firm Perkins Eastman, Hillary DeGroff, wrote a paper last year about the use of biophilic, or nature-derived, design for seniors and aging adults. They argue that designers are rapidly changing the look and feel of senior living in the country, and need to continue to adopt better design practices—light-filled spaces, natural materials—to produce better health outcomes.

“The young knowledge worker isn’t the only one who benefits from biophilic design,” says Wood. “When I design, I ask myself, ‘How do I want to go out in this world?’ I think everyone deserves a space that makes them feel good and alive.”

Wood and DeGroff’s research and conclusions echo Hollwich’s call for more social, healthy living spaces. For them, it’s about qualifying the benefits of “healthier” architecture. Institutional clients have started to come around to the physiological and physical benefits of good design. Their firm’s redesign of the Rockwood Retirement Living in Spokane, Washington, included a series of intimate dining rooms and community spaces, and an outdoor pathway and garden.

“We’re all aware of the almost institutional look of hospital-like retirement homes that housed our grandparents or great-grandparents when we were young,” Wood says. “But we’ve also seen an industry rapidly evolve since the ’50s and ’60s. The industry is interested in new ideas, and the field is ripe for us.”