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America’s Seniors and Covid-19

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interview

America’s Seniors and Covid-19

City Talk March 23, 2020
Covid-19
The Social Order

Photo courtesy of Stephen GolantStephen M. Golant discussed the demographic trends of aging Americans—including how Covid-19 will affect seniors long-term—with Charles F. McElwee, assistant editor of City Journal. Golant is a leading national speaker, author, and researcher on the housing, mobility, transportation, and long-term-care needs of older adults. He is a Fellow of the Gerontological Society of America, a Fulbright Senior Scholar award recipient, Professor Emeritus at the University of Florida, and the author of Aging in The Right Place (2015).

How could the coronavirus affect America’s seniors long-term?

Seniors are most at risk of becoming ill or dying from the virus, especially if they have underlying health conditions. The recommended solution is not just heightened hygiene efforts but also social distancing. Stay home and avoid places with crowds—whether religious congregations, restaurants, social clubs, or senior centers. This is necessary and even life-saving advice. Implementing it, however, threatens the mental health of older people who may feel lonely, fearful, insecure, and helpless during and even after this crisis. And physically and cognitively frail seniors in assisted living and nursing home facilities feel especially vulnerable when they are without the companionship and advocacy of a now sheltering-in-place family. Paradoxically, major aging-focused organizations have for a long time attempted to reframe ageist attitudes in this country by combating the view that getting old is necessarily synonymous with decline, disease, or disability. Unfortunately, the coronavirus, exposing the vulnerability of older adults, will set back these educational efforts. 

What could the future hold for older adults who “age in place” in their long-time communities?

Almost 80 percent of older (age 65 and up) U.S. households own their homes; they are typically reluctant to move elsewhere. Retirement, smaller incomes, spousal loss, empty nests, and health and mobility declines don’t motivate them to move. They are emotionally attached to their homes and value their friends, trusted neighbors, familiar stores, and health providers. Over the next two decades, however, aging baby boomers will be in their mid-70s and older, with a greater risk of serious challenges. Experts worry that higher percentages will occupy dwellings that they can’t afford; those properties also have architectural designs out of sync with their limitations. Family members—the most essential caregivers of frail elders—will be less available to assist, and a shortage of home-care workers will compound the problem. Seniors might also resist adopting smart-home technologies and telehealth services that would enable independent living. When they can’t find decent, safe, and affordable senior housing or care options, these older persons will feel trapped in place.

What is an overlooked trend among today’s seniors?

It’s widely understood that a growing number of aged baby boomers has created a demographic “agequake.” Less appreciated is that a disproportionate share of this population increase takes place in America’s suburbs. Experts fear that older suburban occupants will lose their ability to drive, making these low-density and transit-deficient communities the worst places to grow old. Still, compared with previous generations, today’s older people enjoy more and better ways to obtain needed goods, services, and care and to interact with friends and family. More suburbs are becoming pedestrian-friendly because of redevelopment and built-from-scratch communities. Ridesharing apps and eventually driverless vehicles make it possible for even frail seniors to reach their destinations. But most important, our digital technologies will enable older people to satisfy their needs without leaving their homes.

According to one study, one in eight owner-occupied homes in the U.S.—largely owned by aging baby boomers—will hit the market over the years 2017 through 2027. How will this affect America’s suburbs?

Housing experts have long worried that aging baby boomers will attempt to sell their dwellings, thereby creating a glut of unsold properties. This thinking has two flaws. First, even by 2030, the oldest baby boomers will be under age 85, and most will resist transitioning to downsized homes or to senior-care facilities. At worst, their home sales will take place over an extended period. Second, in the 2030s and 2040s—when higher shares of older baby boomers will move or die—a sizable number of millennial households will be in their forties and fifties. At the peak of their earnings, raising families, and with historically low homeownership rates, they are likely buyers of these older suburban homes. The suburbs will reverse historical trends, becoming home to a younger population.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

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