Former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros on Seniors Housing

Henry Cisneros, former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary and one of the authors of Independent for Life: Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging America, talks to MHN about the major issues regarding seniors housing.

Washington, D.C.—With the large aging population in America, it is more important than ever to look into seniors housing. Henry Cisneros, former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary and one of the authors of Independent for Life: Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging America, talks to MHN about the major issues regarding seniors housing.

MHN: You wrote a chapter in the new book Independent for Life: Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging America. What are some of the main issues right now regarding seniors housing?

Cisneros: This book focuses on the population that is aging so rapidly. Such a large portion of the population is moving toward older years. We now in the country have about 40 million people who are over 65. The oldest of that group, people over 85, presently are 5.8 million. The vast majority of these people tell us that they will live in their own homes. Only a very small percentage lives in nursing homes, about 4 percent of the over-65 population. Given that such a large number of people will be living at home, the issue is how do we prepare the housing stock for the inevitable realities of aging—the impediments, the frailties, the barriers—in the housing stock as it’s being built today.

This book focuses on four things. First, retrofitting the old stock to make it more elderly friendly, all kinds of practical things to make it friendlier and more accessible for older people. Transferring present homes into what we call the “lifespan” home.

As we build additional stock, and we will need to, we have to do it with a view toward the elderly population, that is, homes that are age appropriate. They have to be smaller scale, more affordable, located near amenities.

The third thing is retrofitting communities. Just as we have to retrofit homes, we have to think about how to make communities more accessible to the elderly. When we do town hall meetings and ask elderly people what it is that they fear about their housing situation, they say things like fear of isolation, of being without a car, the fear of not being able to get groceries or get to a doctor, some of the dangers of assaults or burglaries in their homes. We need to think about ways either physically or virtually to eliminate that sense of isolation for people who live in existing homes. We need to create a sense of community, a village that is supportive of the elderly.

The fourth piece is that as we build new communities, we need to keep in mind that a good portion of those who are going to live in those communities are going to be older. And that means building them with an eye toward people who are going to be in those homes through the end of life.

MHN: So there will be less people living in traditional nursing homes? Should we not focus on building them anymore?

Cisneros: I think there will be a need to have them because they tend to be the solution for the end years. But more and more people are going to be living well into their 80s and capable of living on their own. The big bubble of the stock that needs to be retrofitted or built is for that bubble of population that is going to be living to 85, 86, 87, or 88 at home.

One of the elements that make sense is quality housing. People want to be secure, both physically and financially about where they live. It needs to be of good quality, safe so people don’t fall or hurt themselves, all these things are important contributors to creating this opportunity for people to have a longer span of life in good health.

MHN: What are some tips for retrofitting current housing to make it more accessible for seniors?

Cisneros: Elimination of stairs at entrances, walk-in showers, lowering the fixtures in restrooms, lowering of cabinets in kitchens, appliances that are safe such as stoves, path lighting so people can have that as they get up during the night and not fall, so things of that nature. But I think the big answer is, as a country, we need to think about how in the future we’re going to create the lifespan home by retrofitting some of the existing stock with programs and other practical measures, so people don’t think they’re subjecting themselves to abuses or predatory elements of the renovation industry. We can’t allow the industry to prey on the elderly, who might be more vulnerable and susceptible to suggestion to things they don’t need at that point or can’t afford. It’s delicate, but we need as a society to do this because it’s for the benefit not just of the individuals who will live longer and have a higher quality of life, but for the society that will save a lot of money in the process.