What Kind of Housing Do Aging Boomers Need?

Boomers want bungalows (and probably a sports car in the driveway.) . (Photo: 50s ad)

About a year ago, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) released a study about the housing preferences of the boomer generation, summarizing it this way: Boomers Prefer Suburbs and Cul de Sacs. Being a boomer who worries about these things, I was appalled, and wrote in MNN: New study confirms that boomers are clueless. Essentially the data showed that boomers didn't want to change their lifestyles at all.

The contradictions abound. Americans want a fuller life, but they don’t want to live where the amenities, the libraries and theaters and bookstores and where the other people are, which is in the city. They are worried about their health but don’t want to be where the hospitals and the doctors and the specialists are. They want peace of mind, but they still want 2,000 square feet of house in the middle of a lawn that has to be mowed, on a cul-de-sac where they can’t get transit. Basically they want what they have now, but on one floor.

The trouble is, this doesn’t work well if you can’t drive. (Yes, I wrote about that, too: It won't be pretty when boomers lose their cars.) I've seen it happen with my own mom and my late mother-in-law. I can see it happening with me; I no longer like to drive at night thanks to the deteriorating night vision that affects every boomer, whether they admit it or not.

On Jan. 10, the International Builders show opens in Orlando, Florida, and there will be a big splash about the NEXTAdventure House, which is designed by retirement community builder Taylor Morrison around the results of last year’s NAHB study. We'll cover it in greater detail in the next post after the official unveiling, but there are a couple of design elements that are pretty much universal when people think about houses for the aging:

...there are zero [step] entries to the house and fewer stairs, larger doorways, appliances are at a more comfortable height for little to no need to bend over, outlets also are at a more convenient height, natural light is available at all places in the home to assist aging eyes, bathroom grab bars are inconspicuous, and there is simple, helpful technology.

The houses are on one level with big garages, leading to relatively low density. They are in the kinds of communities where people may take walks for a little bit of exercise, but they drive to the store.

What do the numbers say?

disability prevalence as you age
What goes wrong first when you get old. (Photo: JCHS)

I believe the obsession with wide doors with lever handles and corridors connecting the garage to the house is misplaced. If you look at data from the study Projections and Implications for Housing a Growing Population: Older Households 2015-2035, household activities (the blue line) includes driving, food shopping, taking medication and meal prep — and they are the first to go, hitting 65 percent of the over-80 crowd, twice the rate of the mobility issues like walking and getting out of bed. Yet these houses are designed with big garages, wide corridors and giant kitchens, and they're located so that people must drive to go food shopping. There's something wrong with this picture.

DISCLAIMER: Before the comments start flying, the graph shows that even at age 60, there's a large proportion of the population that already has serious household activity problems. I acknowledge that there are many people with chronic and other issues who do need these features, but the majority do not, and with issues of mobility and self-care, they might never.

Let's move to Campodimele

Capodemile italy
That's a big hill there in Capodimele, Italy. (Photo: Wikipedia)

You would think that Campodimele, Italy, would be a terrible place to grow old; there isn’t a flat street in the whole town, not a single-floor house anywhere, and you can’t drive. Yet it's known as the “village of eternity” because everyone seems to live so long and stay in such good health. According to the LA Times, some think it's in their genes; but others think it's much simpler.

Walking is the only way to get around. The village, surrounded by medieval walls, is a warren of narrow streets, alleys and stone steps. The diet exemplifies the Mediterranean cuisine: very little meat, salt and butter; much pasta and raw vegetables; moderate amounts of wine. "We should look at Campodimele with respect. It should not be the exception, but the rule," said Franz Halberg, a University of Minnesota professor who is using data from the village as part of a global study on blood pressure and diet.
House on Thome in Toronto
Gonzalves and Nadia's House. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Last week I saw my neighbor, Gonzalves, chipping the ice on his stairs and getting ready to drag his garbage bin down to the street; it's up there, nine steps out of the 20 to their door. “No, I don’t need any help, this is what keeps us young,” he says. He's in his late 80s. They don’t have a car; Nadia does the shopping about three blocks away, dragging her bundle buggy. She says that's how her mom lived back in Spain, and that's how she's going to live as long as she can. This is not at all unusual in cities. It's why so many elderly New Yorkers are fit; they have to climb stairs and walk everywhere. Stairs are really good exercise, and according to the New York Times, they will help extend your life.

The Harvard Alumni Study found that men who average at least eight flights a day enjoy a 33 percent lower mortality rate than men who are sedentary — and that’s even better than the 22 percent lower death rate men earned by walking 1.3 miles a day.

So again, the paradox; we design houses without stairs out of the worry that we might not be able to climb them at some point, but in the process, we bring that point that much closer.

In his controversial new book "The Case Against Sugar," Gary Taubes makes the case that many, if not all of the diseases that hit us as we grow old — from diabetes to obesity to heart disease to metabolic syndrome, even cancer and Alzheimers — can be blamed on our consumption of sugar. It's a convincing book, but when I look back at the happy active 90-year-olds of Campodimele, they're not eating much sugar, but they're also not driving.

Just as the nutritionists have been proposing a low-fat diet for years, when Taubes recommends low sugar, the planners and retirement home designers are prescribing car-dependent low density, one-floor single-family houses, when the urban design equivalent of sugar is the car — it's our dependence on it that's killing us all.

The case against cars

As much as sugar, cars have made us who we are. Perhaps before it's forced upon them, boomers and seniors should go on a low-car diet. We should not wait until they take our keys away, but instead have to be fit and active enough, and perhaps more importantly, well situated enough, that it won’t matter too much when it happens.

NextAdventure HOuse
Next: Lights on at the NextAdventure House. (Photo: Taylor Morrison)

In the next post, I'll look at that NEXTadventure house, and how it's not only not a very good example of aging in place in, but is in fact probably exactly the opposite, a house that might in fact age you in place.