Academic journal article Journal of Law and Health

Essay: The Challenge of Providing Adequate Housing for the Elderly ... along with Everyone Else

Academic journal article Journal of Law and Health

Essay: The Challenge of Providing Adequate Housing for the Elderly ... along with Everyone Else

Article excerpt

With the "graying" of the baby-boomer generation, the United States is on the verge of an unprecedented demographic revolution that will see the proportion of elderly increase to twenty percent of our population by the year 2050.(2) This fundamental change in the composition of our people will create strains throughout society, not the least of which will be our inability to accommodate the housing needs of an aging population within our existing patterns of land use and development. Because the majority of the elderly desire to "age in place," this strain will be greatest in the suburbs, which will face the largest percentage growth in elderly residents with a housing stock least suited to their needs.

As awareness of the need to provide appropriate housing for the elderly in the suburbs grows, there are increasingly loud calls for these communities to examine how they should change their land use plans and zoning codes to prepare for the demands created by this fundamental demographic change. This essay argues that while such a reexamination is certainly worthwhile, it should not be focused solely on the needs of the elderly, but rather, should look more broadly at how the typical suburban land use regime fails to satisfy the housing needs of a much broader spectrum of Americans.

The rapid increase in the number of elderly we are witnessing would place a strain on any society in the form of escalating demands on publicly-funded retirement programs, health care providers, and social welfare institutions. In contemporary American society, these demands are exacerbated because the growth in our elderly population had been accompanied by several significant changes in our social structure. The most basic of these changes has occurred in the structure of our families and communities. just a few decades ago, the vast majority of our citizens were part of traditional nuclear and extended families residing in relatively stable communities, an arrangement that offered numerous advantages to the elderly. Because families moved infrequently, the elderly were usually surrounded by relatives, friends, and familiar institutions (churches, clubs, organizations) that provided both the increasing levels of assistance often required during the aging process and opportunities for the elderly to feel they were still a useful and needed part of their community. Women largely remained in the home, so they were available to serve as caregivers to elderly relatives who were no longer able to live independently, and families were larger, which meant that there were more adult children to assist in the care of elderly parents.

By contrast, today, and for the foreseeable future, increasing numbers of elderly face the last years of their lives in relative isolation. Some never have married, or have been widowed or divorced without remarrying,(3) but even where a couple remains married into old age and has two or more children, it is not unusual to find that either the children (because of employment requirements or a spouse) or the parents (because of retirement choices) have moved away. And even if parents and adult children all remain "at home," the increasing transience of our communities means that a large number of relatives and friends probably have not. Since, at any given time, only about five percent of the elderly are in institutional facilities such as nursing homes,(4) the vast majority of elderly remain in their homes during the aging process, described as "aging in place." The result is that ever-increasing numbers of today's--and tomorrow's--elderly find that they must face the demands of aging with far less assistance from family and friends than was enjoyed by previous generations.

Further, due to the dramatic growth of suburban communities in the decades following World War 11, the fastest growing segment of the elderly are those "aging in place" in the suburbs: increasing from twenty-six percent of all elderly in 1960 to fifty-seven percent in 1990. …

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