As 77 million boomers begin to retire over the next two decades, they’re launching new careers, taking care of boomerang children, and planning for their next stage in life: senior housing. As gerontologist Jeffery P. Rosenfeld and architect Wid Chapman found in their new book Unassisted Living: Ageless Homes for Later Life, that means anything but nursing homes. “The problem is traditional senior housing, especially long-term care facilities, is isolated from the surrounding community, and boomers find that unacceptable.”
Instead, they’re finding ways to extend their independent-living years by remaining active, retrofitting homes with universal design elements like grab bars, waist-high kitchen shelving, and spacious, wheel-chair friendly rooms. The Fiscal Times talked with Rosenfeld about boomers’ changing views on aging into new living spaces.
The Fiscal Times (TFT): How are boomers going to stay out of nursing homes?
Jeffery Rosenfeld (JF): More than any generation in America so far, boomers are in better shape physically and more hopeful about their health overall. But that said, they’re taking some decisive steps that others haven’t taken before. We found out they were creating space in their home where a caretaker could live or rest while taking care of them.
TFT: When should boomers start thinking about their later-life housing?
JF: Many boomers are already thinking about later life. It’s not unheard of for boomers to have living parents but also to have children and grandchildren. So as boomers grow older, it’s not just a concern for their own health, it’s a concern about intergenerational linkages. For many of the projects we looked at, people were anticipating the aging of entire families.
TFT: Are you seeing boomers wanting to hold onto the home they raised their family in, especially since more college grads are moving back home because of the economy ?
JF: Sometimes children move back home, and it’s expected, but sometimes it’s unexpected. I think the most important thing is to have space that’s elastic and flexible, so that the space can be multipurpose. Remember that people come and people also go, and that’s going to be especially true for college-aged kids. It’s important to have a space that can continue to be part of a kid’s life if they want to move out and go someplace else.
TFT: Some of the features you mention are fewer steps to climb, less lawn to mow, lots of counter space and waist-high kitchen shelving, how are these changes being incorporated?
JF: I think the best way to approach later life is to create changes as you need them. I have seen too many places where people have created entire environments and then found that the environments weren’t suitable, so what I like to advise people to do is to add features as they’re needed.
TFT: Some of the spaces in the book have stairs, why would they choose that?
JF: It’s an example of serendipity how you go into a project expecting to find one thing, but then you find something that’s very surprising. One person in the book, he’s very aware of aging as he’s the director of a geriatrics unit, said that while he understood the benefits of living on one level, he wanted exercise and he realized he wasn’t going to be able to get outdoors perhaps, but that within the home, it didn’t hurt to have some stairs to climb. It’s just a different sense of what it could mean to grow older.
TFT: You admit in the book that many boomers will have to deal with chronic illness and will need assisted living one day. How will they incorporate long-term care and nursing home features into these spaces?
JF: We’ve found that people are taking advantage of a wider-range of technologies and providers. I’m thinking of telemedicine and telepharmacy as new changes that are going to make it easier for people to be monitored from home and communicate with providers and pharmacies. So instead of moving to a long-term care facility, it can be possible to incorporate some of the same features into your home. It also allows you to continue doing those parts of your life that are meaningful for you and keep you involved in organizations and social networks, which wouldn’t happen if you had to relocate.
TFT: You mention “bistro living.” What is that?
JF: We can’t take credit for the term, but by bistro living, we mean that some boomers are downsizing and selling larger, suburban single-family homes and moving back into the heart of urban areas to take advantage of the bright lights and the big city, and becoming residents of townhouses, studios, apartments. We see that happening in a small but significant sector of the boomer population. They’re not necessarily giving up amenities, but they’re looking for the opportunity to be closer to museums and culture and health clubs, and staying close enough to friends and family.
TFT: Are you seeing cities responding to this?
JF: One is Des Moines, which I never would’ve expected, but I see it happening in a number of larger American cities. It becomes interactive: When you have more boomers living in an area, then you offer more amenities, and then the amenities attract more boomers. In Des Moines, they’ve renovated and retrofitted some old warehouses to create studio apartments and created parks and bicycle trails and a number of activities that are attracting people who in later are now finding the city life congenial. Boomers can and are adding so much life when they choose to move back into a city and I think it’s a welcome change.
TFT: Which spaces in the book were your favorite?
JF: I love the examples with unexpected good luck and community. For example, when I went into the project I assumed boomers would be at the vanguard of co-housing — the idea that they get together with a few friends to create home and community. That’s not how it turned out. Co-housing in the U.S. seems to be, by and large, created by people who are much older. Communities like Silver Sage [in Village Boulder, Colo.], which are wonderful places, are more geriatric. Instead, boomers unexpectedly and fortuitously created community when they moved to a place. They’re social, vibrant and expressive enough that they can create community when they move. Later life isn’t always what you expect it to be, and that can be both for the better or for the worse.