3 Ways Cities Can Navigate the ‘Silver Tsunami’

Cities are now five years into a demographic change that will impact nearly every family in America from now until well beyond 2030. In the face of this change, how can city leaders meet the challenge of connecting available resources to the elderly?

(Photo courtesy of the Home Depot Foundation)

Team Depot volunteers are key partners with nonprofits that rehabilitate homes in the Miami area. (The Home Depot Foundation)

The so-called ‘silver tsunami’ has become a relatively well-known form of shorthand for the demographic fact that roughly 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 years old every day. This reality began in 2011 and will continue until 2030. For key lessons from an area with a large population of senior citizens, let’s look at the area around Miami, Florida.

In the City of Miami Gardens, Navy veteran Gary Brown illustrates the need facing seniors and their communities. Mr. Brown served in the Navy during the Vietnam War as an engineer. Trained as an air-conditioning technician and electrician, he worked as a handyman and carpenter until he was forced to retire due to numerous disabilities including hip and knee problems that led to replacements, limited vision in his right eye and complete blindness is his left.

Mr. Brown’s disabilities left him unable to maintain his home, resulting in substantive safety hazards. Most notably, the home’s roof had been leaking since 1992, causing extensive interior damage. Thanks to the support and partnership of Rebuilding Together with The Home Depot Foundation and the Team Depot from a near-by store, Mr. Brown’s home received a new roof, kitchen and bathroom renovations, plumbing repairs, new flooring, doors and drywall, as well as painting and landscaping.

With many seniors facing circumstances like Mr. Brown, how can cities more systematically ensure services are delivered in a coordinated and collaborative manner?

  1. Use data to identify gaps in service.

The primary funding that supports seniors comes due to the Older Americans Act through Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs). In Miami-Dade County, the AAA is the Alliance for Aging. Their work provides a “no wrong door” approach for seniors. To better understand what seniors needed, the Alliance not only held public hearings, but they surveyed front-line staff and looked at client assessments. It was recognized that a quarter of elders reported “problems” with their home, and like Mr. Brown, more than half of these seniors identified issues related to major or minor repairs, including roofing or plumbing issues.

At the core of ensuring we meet the needs of seniors is access to safe and stable housing. Cities must be able to provide seniors with the ability to not just “age in place,” but to “age in community.” The installation of wheelchair ramps, grab-bars, the lowering of counters and cabinets, widening doorways and modifying bathrooms with roll-under sinks can help seniors stay in their homes, remain as independent as possible and avoid costly long-term care facilities.

  1. Build and support partnerships that reflect your community.

To most effectively meet these housing needs of seniors, the area’s leaders recognized the needed to strategically cultivate relationships based on key population characteristics. For example, local leaders recognized that a significant number of veterans lived in the area, so they connected with the Veterans Affairs Medical Center around the VA’s Veteran Directed Home and Community Based Services program. In addition, it was recognized that low-income seniors were over-represented in specific geographic areas. To help reach these individuals, connections were made with community action agencies to help leverage resources such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, the Emergency Home Energy Assistance for the Elderly Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Finally, the diversity of the community was reflected through partnerships with immigrant organizations and faith-based groups such as Catholic Charities and Jewish Community Services of South Florida. Through these partnerships, the AAA identified three groups to provide home modifications and/or repairs. The experience and histories of United Home Care, Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Centers, and 1st Quality Home Care uniquely reflect the area’s population.

  1. Understand and document the cost-savings.

In the ever-present reality of limited resources, it is critical for communities to work together so they can document the cost implications of their service coordination. Not only can this information be used to show the fiscal implications of program investments as a means of educating state and federal officials, the data can also be used as a way of exploring the potential of innovative financing mechanisms. Through its services alone, the Alliance for Aging reports the prevention of 50,359 months of nursing home care at a savings of about $201,435,168 and a rate of nursing home use per Medicaid eligible elder that is 33 percent lower than the state average.

By working with AAAs to document these impacts, cities can better target their resources to ensure they are being as effectively used as possible. In April, the Older American Act was re-authorized. Importantly though, a key section for services has received level funding ever since overall cuts that were implemented as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011. This is particularly concerning in the face of the rising number of seniors in communities.

If funding is not administered through your city, it is essential that local leaders connect with the administrating entity so area residents can be directed to the existing systems in place to meet their needs. To learn what organization is the Area Agency on Aging for your community, visit www.eldercare.gov.

Elisha_blogAbout the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

Ageless Cities

This post is part of a special series of blogs inspired by NLC’s annual Congress of Cities and related events such as the National Summit on Your City’s Families.

Interestingly enough, much of what we have learned about how to make cities great places for youth can be applied to making cities great places for seniors. Perhaps we ought to start talking in terms of age-neutral cities or, better yet, ageless cities.

Engagement is a central characteristic of ageless cities – a determination to create opportunities for individuals to bring their talents to the community for the benefit of all. For youth, engagement may take the form of a city youth commission. Such a commission can offer clear and focused insights about the priorities that young people want, whether it’s skate parks, sports fields, or community service opportunities.

For older citizens, engagement translates into maintaining social networks and an active lifestyle, perhaps including opportunities for employment. For city officials, this means a policy focus on quality health care and the transportation networks that connect people from place to place who may not be able to drive a car.

Good decisions about how local officials build and maintain ageless cities rely on timely data. In the City of Bellevue, Washington for example, the city-created Network on Aging conducted a local needs assessment. The information was used to coordinate and align the work of city departments to address community needs.

I think it boils down to a decision about what and who the community values. Teens, recent college graduates, young singles, married couples, families, empty nesters and single seniors each bring important contributions to a community. Skill, talent, energy, dedication, and ideas are not a product of chronological age. A city that is inclusive; that seeks contributions from all residents and that delivers benefits to all residents is a thriving and attractive place to live. An ageless city makes room for everyone regardless of where they are in the progression of their lives.

Click here to watch my interview with Kathryn Lawler of the Atlanta Regional Commission at NLC’s Congress of Cities on creating ageless cities.

New Data Show Nearly 1 in 5 Homes Have Some Type of Accessibility Problem

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released the results of the American Housing Survey (AHS). This year’s survey had a core set of questions, as well as supplemental questions regarding home modifications and the needs of occupants living with disabilities. The AHS findings confirm that the existing need for home modifications is enormous.

The AHS data show that 17.9% of homes are occupied by someone who has difficulty using kitchen cabinets, household appliances, and/or accessing and using the bathroom. In addition, 34.8% of homes with someone having accessibility issues are renter-occupied. When a home is owner-occupied, the financial challenges of making home modifications are often the primary obstacle. But when renters have accessibility challenges, meeting those needs brings up even more issues. Questions about renter and landlord rights and responsibilities arise, information about available resources is needed, as is knowledge about municipal ordinances, and identifying experienced and trust-worthy workers can make a difference.

With the aging baby-boomer generation and more than a million veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom have physical disabilities, ensuring the housing needs of these community members are met is critical to enabling them to be as fully engaged as possible. Meeting this need requires cities to engage community stakeholders, particularly since cities need to do more with less in the current fiscal environment.

As reported in NLC’s City Fiscal Conditions, 21% of cities reported decreases in human service spending, and 48% reduced the size of their municipal workforce. By leading the engagement and coordination of stakeholders, city’s can ensure that limited resources are used as effectively and efficiently as possible.

With an increasing number of Americans deciding to rent, thousands of baby-boomers turning 65 each day, and veterans with disabilities returning home, the AHS findings underscore the great and growing need for cities to focus on meeting the home modification needs of residents. To offer insight about what cities can do as these factors come together, NLC held a webinar about these issues as they pertain to veterans. But the lessons discussed can be applied to other parts of a city’s population as well.

Who’s Afraid of Renters?

Perceptions seem to be changing but there remains an unfortunate bias against renters. In a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal (May 4, 2012) author Daniel Gross [Better, Stronger, Faster: The Myth of American Decline and the Rise of the New Economy] offers this characterization. “In the American mind, renting has long symbolized striving – striving, that is, well short of achieving.”

Millions of Americans rent; some 34% of them in fact. According to the Census Bureau’s Current Population survey, 42% of renters are under 30 years of age and 17% are over 65. How is it that anyone can lump together so many seniors and Millennials and then suggest that somehow they are not essential elements of the American mainstream that deserve choices in housing?

Renters are transient and disconnected the critics argue. To be sure, renters without children, both young and old, may be disconnected indeed from schools; the one basic hometown institution mostly supported by property taxes. However, from this observation it is a far and dramatic leap to suggest that renters by their very nature are disconnected from the community at large. What models of citizenship are we promoting that equate the value of contributions to a society by the dollars collected through a tax on real property?

Today renters are helping to stabilize and even save neighborhoods devastated by foreclosures just by the act of moving in.  Beyond their physical presence, renters bring income, purchasing power and the foundations of community.

People chose to live in the best place that they can afford.  That best place often has a mix of employment opportunities, welcoming neighbors, and some amenities such as open space or retail shops or entertainment venues.

Being welcoming to new residents regardless of their housing preferences is an act of good faith by a city. By using an inclusive approach, a city can demonstrate that it seeks to attract people of energy and talent to build a life for themselves and for those they hold dear. Such an attitude proudly declares that a community wishes to serve and support a diverse and unique corps of residents.