The aging of housing and its residents go hand-in-hand, and should be addressed similarly.
March 11th, 2021 marked one year since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, and as we start to move towards a version of our pre-pandemic lives, I believe it is important to acknowledge another health crisis. As housing stock ages parallel to the residents within, unsafe and unhealthy living conditions that exist globally are a silent threat that may never end without a significant change in how we address it. With 65 million Gen X-ers and 72 million Millennials following, the 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 each day is just the beginning of what will be a decades-long problem.
If the coronavirus outbreak taught us anything, it is that older adults continue to be one of the most vulnerable populations. For those working alongside our aging community, the vulnerability of older adults has been key to how we deliver assistance, and now that we have lived under a year of global pandemic conditions, the risks and vulnerability of our aging community have taken the main stage.
In the United States alone, adults 65 and older make up 14% of COVID-19 cases, yet account for 81% of COVID-19 related deaths. Add in Americans ages 50-64, and the percentage of COVID-19 related deaths jump to over 95%. What is most troubling is that 40% of all COVID-19 related deaths occurred in nursing homes, and has exposed the importance of addressing the "silent pandemic."
THE SILENT PANDEMIC
The growing aging population and the parallel aging of our existing housing stock are already of pandemic proportions. Similar to the aging of our bodies, the slow deterioration of the existing U.S. housing stock has caused many to fail to take notice...which is why I call this the "Silent Pandemic." In fact long before this pandemic older adults have been sheltered-in-place, not by choice, but by circumstance. This has gone on since the creation of shelter and will continue to be a silent threat to all aging individuals, and unless we continue to take steps to improve housing conditions which in turn improves the physical and mental well-being of all people. The continual loss of life, cost of services to respond and care for serious injuries resulting from falls, and general substandard living conditions that lead to prolonged health conditions can be greatly avoided with some awareness and best practices. More importantly, it is in the best interest of us all to recognize this issue.
WHAT CAN WE DO
The link between housing and health is backed by scientific data. National efforts to implement intervention strategies continue, yet still not a national conversation. To address this silent and present issue of pandemic proportions, here are some points to consider:
Housing is foundational - We know that by placing a family into a home of their own, we can change the trajectory of their lives. From education to health, these outcomes start at home. All streets and spaces lead back to our living environments, and we must continue to see housing as a foundational issue as it makes up roughly 1/6 of our economy.
We cannot dismiss our current housing stock - More specifically, we must recognize how important our existing housing element is in the conversation of affordable housing. After all, nothing is more affordable than what already exists. Housing obsolescence is real and we must have a plan to preserve the current housing element as part of our overall affordable housing plans.
Aging in Place is the best option - 76% of those 10,000 Americans turning 65 each day own their own homes, and according to a poll by AARP, 90% of older adults age 65 and up want to stay in their home as long as possible. Aging in place should be front and center in our conversations about affordable housing as older adults represent a significant part of our owner-occupied housing. More importantly, to take a vulnerable population and place them in a nursing home setting removes them from the mental comfort of a familiar environment. As we see what has happened from nursing home deaths during this pandemic, these environments are not necessarily a safer option.
There is a significant gap in how we can address this - Sadly, after 15 years serving the older adult community and having the opportunity to visit over 5000 homes to inspect and determine the best course of action to improve the quality of life and health outcomes through critical and safety home repairs, it still amazes me to see how so many Americans living in Extremely Low-income households are able to survive on what is basically the same (and below) what is considered the Federal Poverty Level. With many older adults on a fixed income, earning less than $15,000 per year, their ability to afford home repairs is almost non-existent.
It is in our combined best interest - According to CDC, each year we spend over 50 billion on medical costs related to falls. Per individual, these costs can exceed $35k and can be reduced or avoided with low-cost, high-impact home modifications. The impact to mental health and removing fear from living in an unsafe home is also greatly reduced. More importantly, if we are fortunate enough, growing old will be a common bond that we all share. Like many conversations I have heard during the pandemic, the "it only affects older people" argument is short-sighted and will one day be about us if we are lucky to live a long life.
Before I end, I ask that you take a pause to recall your experiences of sheltering in place, and how working from home has at times caused you to turn up your heater from being very cold due to inactivity, even though your home is what is considered a comfortable 70 degrees. Now ask yourself, can I afford to turn on that heat? Can I get up and walk around and get my body temperature normalized through activity? Is my home safe and free from unhealthy conditions due to disrepair? Perhaps you too are experiencing one of these issues, but for many aging Americans dealing with these combined issues, this is the silent pandemic they will have to endure for the remainder of their lives unless we intervene. The scientific data and stats are there to make a strong case on why we should elevate this conversation nationally and locally. However, nothing has quite the impact of hearing about issues directly from those most affected. Please take a brief moment to watch the video below to learn how re-investment into this silent pandemic has had a tremendous impact on older adults, and visit habitat.org/impact/our-work/aging-in-place to find a local Habitat for Humanity affiliate and learn how you can help.