Build It and They Will Come: Senior Housing Needs in Colorado, U.S.

By Maureen Hewitt, InnovAge  President and CEO

A couple months ago the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University released a report finding much of the country isn’t prepared to meet the housing needs of older adults.

This issue has been with us for years, so it’s no wonder in the short time since the report was released nothing has changed.

High-quality, affordable housing for older adults remains scarce in Colorado and throughout the nation.

Much of what is available isn’t easily accessible for those with physical issues or for those who use a wheelchair. Simple things many of us take for granted—the ability to grab a door knob—can’t be accomplished by some older adults.

To address some of these needs, InnovAge recently opened a 72-unit senior housing community in Thornton. In addition to providing critical features such as no-step entries, extra-wide doorways and lever-style door and faucet handles, the complex has other amenities, including a putting green, walking paths and gardens, even a dog park (I’m adamant about ensuring older adults keep their pets when they move). More importantly, these apartments are affordable, specifically targeting older adults with limited incomes. The need is real: the complex is 100% leased with a waiting list.

Adding Americans with Disabilities Act-type adjustments to the physical building makes it easier for older adults to live safely, independently and comfortably in their homes or in housing designed especially for older adults.

But most housing for older adults isn’t designed with them in mind even though they spend a fair amount of money for the privilege to live in it. Today 33% of adults 50 and older—including 37% of those 80 plus—pay more than 30% of their income for homes that may or may not fit their needs, forcing them to cut back on food, healthcare, and, for those 50-64, their retirement savings, according to the Harvard study.

The Harvard report also found “disconnects between housing programs and the healthcare system.” This is important because it puts “many older adults with disabilities or long-term care needs at risk of premature institutionalization”—something we don’t want to happen.

Still, there are promising approaches to address this issue, such as services that bring together affordable housing and healthcare services. For example, those who live in senior-focused housing may take advantage of health services through a PACE (Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly) center, run by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which provides meals, medical and dental services, and activities.

While building new housing designed for especially for older adults is a step in the right direction, we’re learning it can’t be built fast enough to meet the demand. I challenge others to explore this new report and build the facilities older adults need now and in the future.
For if we build it, they will surely come.

Maureen Hewitt is President and Chief Executive Officer at InnovAge, which is based in Denver. With more than 20 years of leadership at for-profit and non-profit health care organizations, Hewitt leads InnovAge, which provides essential services and support for aging adults in California, Colorado and New Mexico.