Planning for Life

Should Seniors Downsize or Age in Place?

Posted by Harry S. Margolis on May 7, 2019

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By Harry S. Margolis

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While everyone's desires and circumstances are different, most people upon retirement or later face the issue of whether to stay in their homes or move, whether to a smaller house or apartment, to a 55 and over community, or to get out of northern winters. Some people want relief from the headaches and expense of maintaining a house, not to mention the lawn in front, while others don't want to leave the home or community where they've lived for decades and raised their families.

The choices seniors make affect their families and communities as well as themselves. A few cases in point:

  • A recent article in The Washington Post reports that more seniors are aging in place and that this is affecting the housing market. Today, 3.6 percent of people born between 1931 and 1941 are giving up home ownership when they reach age 67. For the cohort before them, home ownership at age 67 dropped 11.6 percent. As a result, nationwide those born between 1931 and 1959 are holding onto an extra 1.6 million homes, which is about equal to a year's worth of newly constructed homes.
  • My aunt, who is in her early 90s is continuing to live in the home she and her late husband built. She's very attached to the home, but also very isolated, which is a constant concern to her daughter, my cousin.
  • As I write this post, my town is voting on a debt exclusion to borrow money to expand one school and construct another completely new one, both needed due to an increase in the student body of K-8 schools by 40 percent over the past 15 years. A yes vote will mean a tax increase, which will hit lower- and fixed-income homeowners hardest. Maintaining high-quality schools is important to housing values, as well as our children, those values are only realized when the homes are sold. Increasing housing costs, whether property taxes, home maintenance, or utilities, often impact seniors most, forcing them to sell their homes that they'd rather keep.
  • On the other hand, is it a good use of our housing stock for one or two people to live in a four-bedroom house? Probably not, but who should make decisions about who should live where?
  • Changing housing patterns certainly affect the suitability of housing as people age. The post-World War II move to the suburbs means that many seniors are living in single-family homes where it is more difficult to provide services and they become isolated if they have to give up driving. I've heard that New York apartment buildings are referred to as NORCs, naturally occurring retirement communities, as their residents age in place and it's relatively easy and cost-effective to receive services. Interesting, millennials are said to prefer urban to suburban living which has hurt the market value of homes in some suburbs and which may explain the growing student body in our more urban town.
  • Despite the overall trend of staying in their homes, some seniors are abandoning their suburban homes for apartments in the city. According to an article in The New York Times, this is especially true of New York, which has highest proportion of renters over age 60 of any city in the nation.
  • The growth of the home care industry and services making homes more accessible mean that if they can afford it, more seniors can stay in their own homes longer. Technology may also help keep seniors safe at home without the need to hire expensive hands-on home care.

There are some interesting comments posted on The Washington Post article, one woman telling how neighbors stepped in to help ailing seniors, and another commenting on how much harder it is to move in your 70s and 80s, suggesting that homeowners should be more proactive about downsizing in their 60s when they're more able to take this step on their own.

In short, we should all make our own choices, but in doing so think about our longer-range futures and the potential effect of our decisions, both personally and financially, as we age.

Topics: the accessible home, housing policy ,, home care

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