Spokane Journal of Business

Designing homes that cater to nation's aging population

Not enough attention is being paid to rising need, professors assert in book

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One major aspect missing from recent health-care reform conversations is housing, especially with regard to the aging population of the U.S., say three University of Arkansas researchers.

The researchers—Korydon Smith, Jennifer Webb, and Brent Williams—decided to meld their fields to address what they see as social disparities in housing and publish a new book, titled, "Just below the Line: Disability, Housing, and Equity in the South." Through the book, they seek to redefine conventional concepts of aging, disability, and housing and offer ideas that could lead to nationwide change, with Arkansas serving as a model.

Smith, an associate professor of architecture, is the book's lead author, and cowrote it with Webb and Williams, associate professors of interior design and rehabilitation, respectively.

Problems in housing will become increasingly evident as baby boomers enter retirement over the next few years, the researchers assert. Nationally, about 40 million residents are age 65 and older. That number is expected to double in the next three decades, and the number of people with disabilities also is expected to double in that time.

Post-World War II housing no longer fits the baby boomer lifestyle, the book's authors say. It was designed for young, working families, not for an older population. Not only will those born in the surge after that war likely live longer than previous generations after retirement, they'll also demand more independent residential living than traditional nursing homes or assisted-living facilities.

Yet, the amount of government funds spent on health care versus housing figures out to a 15-to-1 ratio, the authors say. They started their focused research on aging, disability, and housing in 2004 through a statewide survey, with funding from three state agencies. They say they discovered many misperceptions about what disability actually is and the role that design plays. They found that "well over 90 percent of Arkansans believe they will maintain their independence as they age, though 81 percent believe their health will decline. Fewer than half of these folks, however, believe that the design of their neighborhood will affect their ability to live independently."

"We need to be thinking about how we design housing to meet the variety of needs of the current population," Smith says.

Williams says disability should be redefined "as a normal part of human existence, that it exists along a continuum." People move in and out of a variety of levels of functioning throughout the course of their lives, whether they have a cold or a car accident.

Webb says, "We just don't understand the sheer number of people that struggle with some kind of disability, either daily or for a period of their life."

Nevertheless, functioning often is determined not by the health or abilities of the individual, but by design. Design can enable or disable daily functioning. Out-of-date housing is one of those hurdles, particularly in the South, where reverence for tradition makes change difficult.

The researchers chose to focus on the South, and specifically Arkansas, for several reasons. The South has the largest population of the four regions defined by the U.S. Census. It also contains the largest number of older adults and people with disabilities, as well as the largest and fastest-growing retiree population.

Smith says much of today's housing, produced during the housing boom of the mid-1900s, "was designed for a young, active, employed, traditional family structure—not for single parents, not for grandparent-run households, not for widows and widowers living by themselves. So the current housing that we have in this country is seriously out of date in terms of the way it was designed and also in terms of disrepair."

Those houses had a "non-open floor plan, cellular organization, and each function had its own room," he says. Main entries were inaccessible, with steps leading to front porches, and bathrooms and kitchens were small.

The one place people should be most comfortable is their own home, the authors assert. Inadequate housing, however, leads to isolation and decreased independence. Good housing design addresses the needs of all people, even as people's needs, preferences, and abilities evolve, they say.

"If you're designing well, what you're designing should work for the largest number of people on that continuum," Williams says.

Housing solutions outlined in the professors' book include prototypes that maximize adaptability and efficiency, with three specific case studies in distinct regions of Arkansas. Features include a service core, which holds the main plumbing and electrical functions, and minimal interior structural walls, which allows for the reconfiguration of room spaces with movable storage cabinets. Though the homes are smaller than most two- or three-bedroom homes, they are less expensive to build, and their open floor plans make them feel bigger and help with mobility, the authors say.

"Though gender and racial inequality have held a long history in the South, age and disability inequality is, in our opinion, the most significant prejudice that exists in housing today," Smith says.

The authors intended their book as a reference for policymakers, designers, builders, consumers, and others.

"If we continue to ignore housing, we're going to end up with a great deal of public spending in other areas, especially in the health-care arena," Smith says. "Many issues that are housing problems are currently being solved by the health-care world."

Their research found that every $1 spent on housing is equivalent to a savings of $1.20 in health-care costs. Improved housing conditions allow people to live in their homes longer and avoid hospital stays and nursing home care.

They contend their housing solutions could reduce the more than $150 billion per year spent by taxpayers on nursing-home care by providing more accessible retirement living options.

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