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Housing Accessibility and Policy Solutions
Housing should be adequate to meet the needs of all individuals, including adults age 50 and older who have specific housing needs and preferences. The expected growth of the older population between 2010 and 2050 (from 40 million and 13 percent of the population to 89 million and 20 percent of the population) means that more housing suitable for older adults will be in demand. Policymakers must act now to ensure that housing meets the needs of their communities as they age.
One estimate published by the Journal of the American Planning Association projects that by 2050, 21 percent of households will have at least one resident with a physical limitation. For homes built in 2000, there is a 60 percent probability that they will house a resident with a physical limitation, and a 91 percent probability that a disabled visitor will come to that home.
Homebuyers and renters who cannot afford to move or modify their homes may be trapped if their physical abilities decline in an inaccessible home. Moreover, any home that is inaccessible to visitors of varying abilities increases the chances of isolation for the resident, as family and friends are prevented from entering or using the space. Residents in these situations may be prevented from participating fully in their communities and deprived of the economic and social opportunities necessary to support successful aging.
Housing can also impede or support health outcomes, as a home’s design can impact safety and the ability of residents to lead active lifestyles. Universal design elements are critical to helping older adults continue to live independently within their homes and age in place without physical barriers that may hinder their connection to their communities.
Universal design elements are usable by people of all ages and abilities without adaptation or specialized design. Homes that incorporate universal design features may include wide doorways, adequate maneuvering space in kitchens and bathrooms, switches and handles that are easy to reach and operate, and slide-out shelves. These and other features enable people to remain in their homes throughout their lifespan, even as their needs change over time. A person with a disability that affects their personal mobility, hearing, or vision will benefit from these features, but universal design features are also designed to be seamlessly integrated into their environment without having an “institutional” design that can limit the appeal of a home.
Physical barriers in the home can also prevent people who have mobility challenges from visiting the homes of friends and relatives, thereby limiting important life-enriching interactions. Visitability features are a subset of universal design features that address access to the main part of the house, such as wide doorways, a zero-step entrance, and access to a toilet facility with adequate space for maneuverability. These core access features provide benefits to household members and enable others with mobility limitations to visit the resident. This prevents housing design from being a barrier that prevents a person with a physical disability from visiting a home. Homes with other subsets of universal design features may be known as inclusive, livable, age-friendly or by other names.
As these features are designed to be seamlessly integrated into homes for any person, they can make a home usable for a resident with a short-term mobility impairment or a sudden onset of physical disability. Some local jurisdictions have begun promoting these features in new construction through code requirements or incentives to consumers and builders in order to deal with the needs of residents and visitors.
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