What will be the future of living environments for older adults? Photo: Deposit Photos

21 Jan Ideas: What Home Might Look Like in the Future for Aging Baby Boomers

By Liddy Manson

Seventy million American baby boomers will turn 70 within the next 15 years, which will fuel the largest population shift in our country’s history. Maybe you’re one of them.

My guess is that you’ll make different choices from your parents. After all, you’ll probably live five to 10 years longer than they did. And you’re probably in better health than they were at your age. And you might have traveled more, have more diverse friends, stay in touch with the people in your life differently, and most likely have kids and close family members who don’t live nearby.

And most boomers don’t have quite enough in savings to live in today’s senior housing for more than a few years—if they want to live there at all. Because more than half of the nation’s homeowners are 50-plus years old, we at Georgetown University’s Global Social Enterprise Initiative’s AgingWell Hub set out to reimagine the future of living environments for older adults. How do today’s boomers think about their communities, activities, families, and jobs? And how will those elements of their lives inform their future housing decisions?

The good and the bad news is that the living environment that most boomers will want and will be able to afford does not yet exist in large quantity. Why is that good news? Because we still have plenty of time to create the environments that people want. And we can all get involved in shaping that future.

Our research leveraged a method called human-centered design, which helps get to the heart of market possibilities by taking the point of view of a hypothetical person and walking a mile (or in this case, five years) in their shoes.

Map courtesy of Aging Well Hub

In our case, our “persona” is a woman named Melinda, aged 68, working part time, and living alone in the house in the Atlanta suburbs where she and her husband raised their two kids, who are now adults with families of their own.

Melinda is in good health, both physically and financially, with a net worth of $260,000, most of which is in her home. Like many other women her age, Melinda doesn’t live near her sister or kids. But she stays in close touch by using basic technology (Skype, Facebook, FaceTime, and email) and has one very close friend her age who lives nearby. Melinda leans on her daughter, her friends from church, and her book group for support.

As a research team, we took several months to imagine what life would feel like for Melinda over the course of five years, from age 68 to age 72. We followed Melinda as she got her footing after her husband’s death, took a cruise to treat herself to some fun, met a new love interest, retired from her job, and discovered that she was capable of thriving as a single woman in ways she wouldn’t have imagined two years earlier.

Melinda also encounters challenges as her close friend moves away, her kids have financial strains, she finds retirement lonely, and she spends more money than she’d originally planned. When she discovers she needs to make significant improvements to her house, which hasn’t been upgraded in 35 years, she’s forced to make a decision about her best living options. She is unlikely to move into traditional senior housing at this stage of her life. She’s still very independent, and her budget doesn’t allow for a 10- to 15-year tenure in an environment that costs $3,000 to $5,000 per month. But remaining in her home alone requires investments that she hasn’t planned for. There isn’t a perfect solution for her or the millions of Americans who find themselves in her situation.

Trend toward multi-generational family living is now and in the future. Photo: Deposit Photos

So, we imagined what might be possible and what is already starting to happen in America. She could combine households with a good friend or rent out a portion of her house to generate additional income. She might convince her recently divorced daughter who’s struggling financially to move back to Atlanta and join the upward trend in multi-generational housing that’s been on the rise over the past decade. Or she might decide to sell her house, put that equity to work in an innovative financial instrument, and rent a small apartment nearby with easy access to retail, public transportation, community organizations, and ride shares.

Technology developments of the past 10 years will likely shape Melinda’s decision-making process. With ride-sharing services exploding, she likely won’t be completely dependent on a car to access basic services. And with rising rates of e-commerce, there will be few household goods that can’t be delivered to her door. Online rental marketplaces can allow her to monetize the unused space in her home on a short- or long-term basis. And services like TaskRabbit will support her in doing basic household tasks that might be difficult for an older person living alone. All of them will allow Melinda to make her decisions based on what she wants rather than what she feels she must do to minimize risk.

In other words, Melinda has a vast array of choices. And if she’s like the others in her boomer generation, she won’t hesitate to get creative and lead the way.

Liddy Manson is the director of AgingWell Hub, Georgetown University’s Global Social Enterprise Initiative, part of the McDonough School of Business.

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