Problem Gets Short Shrift

By Golant, Stephen M. | Aging Today, November/December 2003 | Go to article overview
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Problem Gets Short Shrift


Golant, Stephen M., Aging Today


THE QUIET CRISIS-AFFORDABLE HOUSING INADEQUATE FOR ELDERS

Only a handful of dedicated academics and advocates noticed the final report of the Commission on Affordable Housing and Health Facility Needs for Seniors in the 21st Century published last year. The 18-month study, titled "A Quiet Crisis in America," was mandated by Congress and resulted in the most comprehensive examination of the unmet housing needs of this country's elderly population through 2020.

The commission recognized the increasingly blurred boundaries between housing and care and how artificial programmatic barriers prevent their integration. It focused on older households that have difficulty paying for their housing costs or are living in physically substandard or design-insensitive dwellings. Beyond that, the commission looked at physically or cognitively impaired elders, who need affordable long-term care alternatives that would allow them to live with dignity in noninstitutional settings. The commission proposed a wide-ranging set of solutions to address these problems.

7 MILLION HOUSEHOLDS

As a consultant to the commission charged with analyzing the relevant data, I had a front-row seat to observe the sometimes-contentious deliberations of its 13 members. Eventually, though, by analyzing the best available data and listening to the testimony of countless older consumers, professionals and policy-makers, the commission issued its report identifying more than 7 million older households where the residents have difficulty paying for housing or live in physically substandard dwellings. That number will rise to 11.3 million by 2020, the commission found. Even as the need is increasing, federal funding for new affordable housing has failed to keep pace with the growth of the population of low-income older adults. In addition, the supply of low-rent, government-subsidized housing is dwindling as owners exercise their right after a certain period to convert units to private-pay status at market rates.

The commission also concluded that current community-based care, supportive service programs and affordable assisted-living options inadequately address the needs of the almost 20% of today's elders with.physical or cognitive impairments. Even though a decreasing proportion of tomorrow's older adults are likely to experience these disabilities, the rapid growth expected in the size of the older population means that housing and health policies in the United States will be ill-prepared to meet the future age wave. The commission report shows that federal and state long-term care policies lack synchronization, the U.S. departments of Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services fail to coordinate their related programs, older people still enter nursing homes prematurely and state governments incur excessive long-term care expenditures.

In the United States, more than 35 million people are 65 or older, and most younger people have parents, grandparents or other elderly relatives. Thus, one might have expected that a large share of the public would be very interested in the report, yet the media have only covered the commission's findings anemically. Why do they ignore a story so relevant to most Americans? The easy answer is that housing for older people is not a very sexy topic. It fares poorly as dinner party conversion next to the war in Iraq or tax cuts. But there are other reasons.

SUFFERING IN SILENCE

Older people do indeed suffer silently. Perhaps it is the stoicism born of living through depressions and fighting world wars. They don't loudly broadcast their financial anguish when the interest on their passbook savings accounts drops to one percent, when they pay burdensome rents and property taxes, or when they drain their savings to replace that 30-year-old roof.

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