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High Cost of Housing Forcing Elderly Americans to Cut Back on Food and Healthcare: Study

Harvard researchers find that excessively expensive housing failing to meeting seniors' needs and forcing many into premature institutionalization

The high cost of housing is making it difficult for older Americans to pay for vital needs, including healthcare and food, and forcing them to live in financial insecurity into their old age, finds a recent report by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Entitled "Housing America’s Older Adults—Meeting the Needs of An Aging Population," the study notes that the population of older adults in the U.S. is rapidly growing, with those aged 50 and over expected to reach 132 million by 2030. But housing for this population, which the report states is "central to quality of life," is already proving excessively expensive, inaccessible, and "ill-suited" to meet the unique needs of elderly people.

In 2012, one third of adults 50 and over were "cost burdened," meaning that they pay more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing—a rate that rises to 37 percent when the population aged 80 and over is considered. Nearly half of this cost burdened population faces a "severe burden," meaning they pay more than 50 percent of their incomes on housing. Older adults of color are hit hardest: in 2012, 29 percent of older white households were cost burdened, compared to 39 percent of older Asian, 43 percent of older Hispanic, and 46 percent of older black households, the study finds.

The high cost of housing forces older Americans to cut back spending on fundamental needs. According to the study, "severely cost-burdened households aged 50 and over in the bottom expenditure quartile spend 43 percent less on food and 59 percent less on health care compared with otherwise similar households living in housing they can afford."

While homeowners are comparatively better-off than renters, they too face hardship. In 2010, over 70 percent of homeowners between the ages of 50 and 64 were still paying off mortgages, the report finds.

Most U.S. housing units do not include vital features for senior living, including no-step entryways, single floor living units, and accessible electrical switches. Elderly Americans, furthermore, face isolation and immobility due to shortcomings in mass transportation and pedestrian infrastructure. In addition, the report states, "Disconnects between housing programs and the health care system put many older adults with disabilities or long-term care needs at risk of premature institutionalization."

“Recognizing the implications of this profound demographic shift and taking immediate steps to address these issues is vital to our national standard of living,” said Chris Herbert, acting managing director of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, in a press statement. “While it is ultimately up to individuals and their families to plan for future housing needs, it is also incumbent upon policy makers at all levels of government to see that affordable, appropriate housing, as well as supports for long-term aging in the community, are available for older adults across the income spectrum.”

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