Recent studies from the University of Kentucky College of Social Work illuminate how adults think about and plan for their housing needs as they age—with key takeaways for policymakers and developers in view of housing shortages across the nation. Both studies, led by Alison Gibson, PhD, and Natalie Pope, PhD, were conducted as part of the Age Friendly Lexington initiative and published in the Journal of Gerontological Social Work.
“Many people wait for a crisis of health or functional change that challenges their ability to stay independent in their residence of choice,” Dr. Pope said. “But it is important that communities, with input from older residents, plan for these changes. Age Friendly initiatives may help these coordinate efforts to educate residents and provide logistical support for making the necessary changes to age safely and have a better quality of life.”
Aging Populations Require New Approaches to Housing
Limited community planning for older adults has created a critical housing gap, despite many advanced economies being home to rapidly aging populations. As of 2018, half of all households in the U.S. were headed by someone at least 50 years of age, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies. With that number expected to increase, preparing for this population shift by anticipating housing needs and preferences is essential to ensuring quality of life for older adults.
UK College of Social Work researchers surveyed more than 1,500 Lexington, Kentucky residents over the age of 30 on a variety of housing considerations. Analysis revealed that, regardless of age, the most important housing considerations were safety in the home, affordability, privacy, proximity to services frequently used, and accessibility. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 88% of respondents reported that they would prefer to live in their own home. Roughly a quarter of those surveyed reported they would remain in their own home even if it meant their personal needs could not be met (i.e., adequate safety, nutrition, etc.).
The Opportunity in Home Sharing
While the preference to live in one’s home is consistent with findings from other studies, it is often an unrealistic expectation. Prior research estimates that more than half of adults will require modifications to their living environment in later life. Findings from this study suggest that older adults may be willing to risk well-being and safety in order to remain in their home.
One unexpected finding was that almost half of older respondents expressed a willingness to share a home with a roommate. Around 40% of respondents said they would be willing to have a roommate if they had their own bathroom. For housing planners and developers, this suggests a home-sharing model could allow older adults to meet some of their needs as the result of age-related changes, as well as provide companionship.
“Since so many adults in this study expressed a willingness to reside with a roommate as a way to have housing preferences met, this model may be a promising option for aging adults,” Dr. Gibson said. “Data suggests that city planners and property developers should prioritize these preferences when planning for the housing-related needs of older residents.”
In Kentucky, the Age Friendly Lexington initiative and local grassroot groups like the Bluegrass Intentional Living group, known for their work on Reimagining Home, has already begun exploring this opportunity and is expanding local resources for older adults interested in home sharing. Various property developers have consulted these groups as they pursue opportunities for senior housing development.
Bridging the Gap with Community Input
UK College of Social Work researchers also found that aging adults cared both about the physical structure of their home and the community-based aspects of where they live. Results suggested social workers, alongside community members and aging-service providers, can support age-friendly housing models by working with community leaders to develop local scholarships for emergency home modifications to make aging in place safer, and providing access to a list of affordable, verified providers that can help with the installation of these modifications. Additionally, aging-service providers could build a volunteer program to assist residents with minor home repairs or yard work such as mowing or clearing gutters.
About Age Friendly Lexington
The Age Friendly Lexington initiative supports the efforts of neighborhoods, towns, and cities to become great places for people of all ages. Livable Lexington is a collaboration of volunteers and organizations working to make Lexington-Fayette County more livable for everyone at any age.
About the UK College of Social Work
For over 80 years, the University of Kentucky College of Social Work has been a leader in social work education. Our mission is clear: Through rigorous research, excellence in instruction, and steadfast service, the College works to improve the human condition. Always, in all ways. To learn more about the College of Social Work, visit socialwork.uky.edu.