It’s been called the “Senior Tsunami,” an impending demographic wave in the form of an aging population that planners and policy experts say New Jersey’s communities are not prepared to handle.
“It brings along with it big questions,” said Courtney Christenson of the Corporation for Supportive Housing at a conference Thursday in Princeton. “So, are our housing stock, the medical, long-term care and more systems ready to handle this growth in older adults? And I think we’d probably all say no.”
The projections are sobering, as America’s post-war Baby Boom generation increasingly reaches senior citizen status. “By the year 2033, there’ll be more people in the United States who are aged 65 or older than there are 18 or younger,” Christenson said. “So we’re going to have more seniors than kids.”
Housing was the number one concern at the conference, held at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation headquarters. It’s an issue of particular importance in the high-cost Garden State.
“In New Jersey, we know it’s a real challenge. We’re one of the least affordable states in the nation,” said Arnold Cohen of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey.
“Housing affordability has gotten worse over time,” Christenson said. “And it is hitting older adults hardest. In New Jersey, the statistics mirror we’re seeing across the country. Nearly one in five of the people who are currently living on the streets or shelters, experiencing homelessness, is over the age of 55.”
She added that the homelessness rate for those 65 or older is projected to be double in 2050 what it was in 1990, a trend that can have a major impact on health and life expectancy.
“People experiencing homelessness, living on the street, experiencing toxic stress, not able to address medical issues, age at an advanced rate,” Christenson said.
What can communities do to better prepare?
“What people want out of their communities is not just determined by their age,” said Christine Newman of AARP New Jersey. “Millennials want the same thing older adults want. They want walkable, connected communities. They want things like access to affordable housing and diverse housing, transportation, outdoor public spaces.”
The experts said planning for an aging population should start with the development of housing.
“No step entryway, right? It’s simple things like doorknobs,” she said. “And pulls on the shower. Are they lever, which is easier, verses knobs, which can be harder, especially if you have issues with grip. How wide are doorways?”
Developers should think outside the box in terms of the types of houses they’re building, that affordable housing doesn’t always mean a high rise. When it comes to the state’s role, there is pending legislation that would control rent increases for seniors. And the Governor’s Office now has an Office of Homelessness Prevention, which is being asked to collect data to better assess needs.
The conference was hosted by the New Jersey Foundation For Aging, which last year released a report showing that many seniors in the state are at risk of homelessness — unable to afford either their current housing or to move someplace cheaper. Nearly one in three rely on Social Security as their only source of income.
The group’s recommendations included increasing the stock of affordable housing available and rent subsidies for seniors, as well as policies that allow seniors to age in place, including tax credits to tailor homes for senior life and a cap on property tax assessments for the elderly.