Accessible Homes for Older Adults in Chicagoland

Following the successful celebration of Older Adult Americans Month in May, which was themed Age My Way, Mainstreet Organization of REALTORS®  Senior Services welcomed Samara Scheckler, a research associate for Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. She discussed findings from Harvard University's Joint Center of Housing Studies' new paper, "How Well Does the Housing Stock Meet Accessibility Needs? An Analysis of the 2019 American Housing Survey." 

There were several key takeaways from the presentation that inform how older adults can age their way, either by modifying their current home, or working with a REALTOR® to find a new home that is more accessible. 

Accessibility in this case is described as navigable and usable by people with certain long-term difficulties and disabilities, such as walking or climbing stairs, bending or reaching, loss of hearing, low vision or cognitive difficulties. 

How Accessible Are Our Homes?

The Department of Housing and Urban Development sponsors the American Housing Survey every other year on odd years, and conducted two special additional modules in 2011 and 2019, which provided insights on accessibility generally, and particularly as it related to older adults. 

The 2011 survey specifically focused on features that support accessibility in the home, which included single floor living, no-step entries and extra wide hallways and doors. Data showed only 3.5 percent of homes had all three of these accessibility features. Other accessibility features include lever style handles on doors and faucets and electric controls and thermostats reachable by those using a wheelchair. When added into the three previous elements, data showed less than 1 percent of the housing stock has all five of these features. The housing stock that is least accessible is in the Northeast, followed by the Midwest, and single-family homes are less accessible, while multi-family homes tend to be more accessible.

How Well Do Homes Meet People's Needs?

The 2019 American Housing Survey focused less on physical features of the home and more on fit of the home, or the concept of person-environment fit.

Person-environment fit is focused on the interface between people and the environment in which they live. Poor fit may limit individuals' functioning and mean they need to rely on others for help, change behaviors in their home, or face heightened risk. However, good fit can increase residential stability, safety and independence. 

According to the 2019 study, over 5 million households report that at least one member of the home had difficulty getting into or around the home and 4.5 million reported some difficulty using certain rooms – this means about 4 percent of US households are facing accessibility challenges. 

The data is clear, these accessibility challenges are more prevalent for older adults who report more difficulty entering, navigating and using their homes, and difficulties reported increase steadily every decade or so. Households headed by individuals between the ages of 50 and 64 and 65 and 79 make up those who report the most significant difficulties. Difficulties with accessibility are also increased for older adults with lower incomes and older adults of color. 

Interestingly, where a member of the household uses a mobility device, households are more likely to report difficulty getting around, but they are also generally more satisfied with their housing fit, particularly among older ages. 

Increasing the Accessibility of Our Homes

There are certainly solutions to make homes more accessible by addressing both features as well as person-environment fit. These include modifying an existing home, changing features of the home to improve accessibility or changing the way the home is used. Some older adults may also consider moving into a home that provides no-step entryways, single floor living or wider entries and hallways. 

Regardless of the path taken, ideally people are thinking about resident-housing fit proactively. This means adding adaptable features to the home, such as a shower bar, that can be used if needed. There's also a broader solution known as universal design that can be adopted. Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design, such as designing homes with no-step entryways that have curb appeal and are, at the same time, accessible. 

Technologies, such as smaller profile mobility wheelchairs, stair climbing devices, and smart home technology can also support accessibility for older adults. While these options provide promise for the future, their availability and costs can be significant and they can pose challenges for older adults who do not have internet access or digital skills.  

Looking for a Mainstreet REALTOR® that specializes in working with seniors? Be sure and look for someone with the SRES Designation which stands for Seniors Real Estate Specialist. Find an SRES designee here,