Housing of Older Adults

Compared with young and middle-aged adults, on the average older adults spend a smaller portion of their income on housing. The main reason is that a much larger percentage of older adults own their homes free and clear, though these homes are often of lower value than those of younger people. Furthermore, because their incomes are typically lower than those of homeowners, older adults who rent usually pay a higher percentage of their income for housing than other age groups. This is especially true of older residents in inner cities, who spend the largest portion of their monthly income on rent and utilities, followed by clothing, and only then by food.

Another characteristic of living arrangements of older adults is that a greater percentage of them live alone, many of whom are widows. Those who are physically and financially able to do so generally prefer this arrangement because it allows them to have more freedom and independence from their relatives or other housemates so they can do what the wish when they want to.

Whether they own or rent, and whether they live alone or with other people, older adults reside in a variety of dwellings—houses, apartments, hotels, modules, mobile homes, and so on—and facilities. Many of these dwellings are old, in disrepair, unclean, and unsafe. They tend to have fewer rooms and fewer amenities than the homes of younger and middle-aged adults. For the most part, the houses in which they live are in fairly sound condition, but the older ones tend to need repairs in plumbing, heating, electrical systems, and sewage disposal (Taeuber, 1993). Maintenance costs for leaking roofs, incomplete plumbing, kitchen facilities, and pest control tend to be high. Consequently, home repairs are not made as often as they should be, and remodeling is even less frequent. Some repairs and maintenance, such as roofing and plumbing, are vital, whereas others, such as kitchen and bathroom modernization, are discretionary. Discretionary remodeling of the home of an elderly person may include the installation of handrails in the hallways, grab bars in the bathroom areas, and adaptations to accommodate wheelchair access and sensory deficits that occur with aging.

Despite the expense of repair and remodeling, most elderly homeowners prefer not to move. This was one of the most salient findings of a recent telephone survey of Americans aged 50 and over (American Association of Retired Persons, 1996). In addition to indicating that they would like to stay in their homes and never move, a majority of the survey sample reported that they

1. Live in single-family, detached homes.

2. Own their own homes.

3. Live in households with one or more other people.

4. Are very satisfied with their housing and their neighborhoods.

5. Prefer to live in neighborhoods with people of all ages.

6. Prefer small-town and country life to living in cities or suburbs.

7. Have made very few modifications in their homes to deal with potential disabilities.

8. Would rather move to a care facility than move in with family members or friends if they were forced to move.

9. Have made few housing plans for the future.

According to Elias and Inui (1993), continuing to live in one's home reinforces the elderly person's feelings of "undiminished stature, sturdiness, functionality, permanence, and presence in the community" (p. 401). For this reason, it might seem as if cash-poor older homeowners would have opted for a home equity conversion. In this strategy, the value of the home, after subtracting any mortgage, is converted to cash to meet the person's living expenses. One type of home equity conversion is a reverse annuity mortgage (RAM), which lets a person who is 62 or older turn the equity in his or her home into cash without having to sell or move. The owner receives regular monthly payments for 3-10 years or as long as he or she lives in the home.' The loan is not repaid until the owner dies or sells the home, so he or she can remain there as long as long as desired and use the home as collateral for the loan. Another plan is a sales leaseback, in which the owner sells the home and leases it back from the purchaser for an indefinite time period. The owner now becomes a renter in what was previously his or her own home, and so is not responsible for taxes, repairs, maintenance, or property insurance. Although a high percentage of Americans aged 50 and over are apparently aware of RAMS and sales leasebacks, only about 3-6% have had any personal experience with home equity conversion or know anyone who has. A large majority indicate that they would not even consider such an arrangement (American Association of Retired Persons, 1996). The unpopularity of these mortgaging methods for defraying home expenses is undoubtedly due in some measure to the psychological factor of living in a home that one does not own. When zoning laws permit, other ways of meeting expenses, such as taking in boarders, are possibilities. However, they too are not popular with older adults.

The need for adequate housing of both older and younger adults of limited means has led to the development of programs designed to meet some of those needs. A number of programs are supervised by state and federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development information and assistance on ohtaining government-backed reverse mortgages can be obtained free of charge from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

(HUD) and the Department of Agriculture. The programs, most of which apply to Americans of all ages, are concerned with providing (1) financial incentives and assistance for refurbishing existing buildings and constructing new rental units; (2) subsidies for rental payments of lower income persons; (3) financial assistance in the form ofblockgrants, low interest loans, and loan guarantees to cities, counties, and states to fund low-rent apartments; (4) tax incentives to investors in rental projects that allocate a certain percentage of the units to low-income families; and (5) assistance to homeless people who need emergency food and shelter (Golant, 1992).

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