Aging In Place

Snuggled between blue ocean and sage hills, Laguna Beach, Calif., spoils its 25,000 residents. The balmy climate, sandy beaches and sense of community — rooted in surfing and the arts — make it hard to leave the captivating coastal town.

But it can also be hard to stay for growing numbers of aging residents who find it difficult to live safely and happily in their longtime homes. Laguna Beach has many charms, but there is a woeful lack of housing options for seniors who are aging out of their homes, but want to remain in the community where they have deep roots.

Other communities might be able to build their way out of the problem, but Laguna Beach lacks developable land to add senior housing because of its steep hills, strong environmental regulations and an expensive real estate market. Laguna Beach seniors essentially have only one option if living in their home becomes too challenging: move to another community.

Nobody — not the people who must move or the community they leave behind — wins in that scenario. “We lose people who actually made this town the place we want to live in,” said Chris Quilter, a retiree who has lived in Laguna Beach for more than 30 years. “We need to come up with some creative solutions to help people age in place.”

Aging in place — in the same home or at least in the same community — is the goal of older people everywhere. Nearly 90 percent of seniors want to remain in their home as they age, according to AARP. “If you have a home you love, you want to stay there forever,” Quilter said.

Making that possible is a challenge throughout the country as the massive baby boom generation — people born between 1946 and 1964 — ages.

The number of people 65 and over will increase by nearly 18 million between 2020 and 2030 when the last boomers celebrate their 65th birthday, according to the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C. By 2060, the total number of older Americans will reach nearly 100 million — a quarter of the population.

“We’re getting older as a country and we’re not ready in a whole bunch of ways,” Quilter said.

Laguna Beach, where the median age is 50, is working to change that. After a senior housing task force found a strong desire in the community for aging in place services and support, the city council approved a recommendation to create Lifelong Laguna, an aging in place coalition administered by Laguna Beach Seniors, the nonprofit agency that runs the city’s senior center.

LifeLong Laguna is patterned after a model developed by the Village to Village Network, a nonprofit organization based in St. Louis, Mo. The idea is to form virtual villages to coordinate access to affordable senior services and provide volunteer assistance — everything from a ride to the store to minor home repairs/improvements — that help seniors age safely and comfortably in their own homes.

“I’m 74 and I don’t want to start getting on step ladders, so the idea that somebody would come over and change a light bulb is kind of appealing,” Quilter said.

“I’m 74 and I don’t want to start getting on step ladders, so the idea that somebody would come over and change a light bulb is kind of appealing,” Quilter said.

The thought that anyone living in Laguna Beach — where the median home price hovers around $2.5 million — would need a helping hand sounds strange, but many longtime residents moved there before home prices skyrocketed. They are house rich, but comparatively cash poor unless they sell their home and move away.

“Those are our friends and neighbors. I don’t feel sorry for them. I want them to stay in town,” said Quilter, who is president of the senior center board.

Isolation is one of the biggest threats to the wellbeing of seniors aging in their own home. Outreach by Lifeline Laguna volunteers will maintain their connection to the community and ensure critical needs are met.

“They go off the radar and can be hard to find,” said Lauriann Meyer, executive vice president of the Laguna Board of REALTORS®. “They age and age and they should not be alone in houses that are not designed for elderly individuals. If they’re lucky, they have a family member or two to help them, but many don’t.”

The Laguna Board of REALTORS® received a Housing Opportunity grant from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® to help Lifelong Laguna conduct focus groups to better understand the senior housing landscape in Laguna Beach.

Lifelong Laguna is now in the early stages of recruiting and training volunteers and connecting them with seniors. In addition, the coalition used remaining NAR grant funds to hold a workshop to educate city residents about changes in state law that potentially make it easier for homeowners to add accessory dwelling units.

Creating more accessory dwelling units — a.k.a. granny flats — would provide a housing option for aging Laguna Beach seniors who are ready to sell their house but want to remain in the community they love. “There are a lot of people who may want to add onto their home and rent to seniors,” Meyer said.

Augusta, Maine, is a long way from Laguna Beach, but the city of 18,000 — which is the state capital — is equally concerned about helping older residents age in place in their home and/or community. Augusta is among 189 cities and counting from across the country — including a nation-leading 40 in Maine — to join the Network of Age-Friendly Communities.

Managed by AARP as part of a World Health Organization global initiative, the network provides tools, conducts webinars, shares best practices and supplies resources to help communities develop an age-friendly action plan tailored to their needs.

“We probably have 15 initiatives here in the city of Augusta to make it a more livable city, not just for old folks like me, but for everybody,” said retiree Bob McDougall, who chairs the committee that guides Augusta Age Friendly.

McDougall, 68, and his wife, Carol, 70, led a grassroots charge for the city of Augusta to join the age-friendly network, form the committee and develop an action plan. McDougall has since joined the city’s comprehensive plan committee to bring an age-friendly perspective to the long-range planning process.

Augusta Age Friendly has teamed up with other agencies, organizations and businesses to:

  • Publish an age-friendly resource guide to help seniors find services and support.
  • Arrange for free delivery of sand buckets to seniors so they can sand their sidewalks during winter without having to go get the sand themselves.
  • Organized a crosswalk safety demonstration to familiarize residents of a senior housing complex with the crossing signals near their complex so they can navigate the crossing safely.
  • Enlist local high school students to provide smart phone training to seniors as a community service project.
  • Install benches outside two grocery stores to provide a place for seniors to sit while awaiting a ride.
  • Develop a program with the local Masonic Lodge to provide volunteer home repairs and maintenance.

“I live in a house that’s a mile [off the road] and I would love to live here until I’m 80, but I don’t think I can without help from the community, so we’re building that help,” McDougall said.

Not every senior wants to live in their home that long, but they may want their next stop to be a place where they can live comfortably through all of the stages of life to come — 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s. Some find exactly what they’re looking for through senior cooperative housing.

“These are fundamentally buildings where people age in place,” said Dennis Johnson, president of the Senior Cooperative Foundation, a Sharpeville, Minn., organization that supports development of senior co-op housing. “The oldest resident I know of is 104 and living independently.”

The co-ops are owned by the residents, who manage them through a board of directors and various committees. Although co-ops do not provide assisted living services such as meals and health care, the units are basically maintenance free. Residents, who typically come from surrounding neighborhoods, are responsible for their belongings, but virtually everything else inside and out — from appliances to flooring to windows — is the responsibility of the co-op to maintain and replace, John said.

Residents buy a share in the co-op when they move in — which usually runs between $100,000 and $150,000 — and make monthly payments of around $1 to $1.30 per square foot for their chosen unit, Johnson said. When a unit is vacated, the co-op buys back the share for the price the resident paid — plus 2 percent or so annual interest. The share is then resold.

Retirees Dean and Barb Larson, 77 and 75, moved into a 1,300-square-foot unit in the 7500 York Cooperative just outside Minneapolis seven years ago. “If something happened to one of us, we wanted to be in a community,” Barb said. “You don’t get that in a condo or a townhouse.”

The nine-story building, which includes a ground-floor restaurant and convenience store, contains 337 units and is home to 420 people, who form close social bonds through dozens of clubs and committees. “We’re like a small town with a roof on it,” said Barb Murphy, who manages the building for the co-op.

With only 114 senior housing co-ops nationwide — the vast majority in Iowa and Minnesota where people are familiar with co-ops through utility and agricultural co-ops — senior cooperative housing has room to grow, Johnson said. The biggest hurdles for developers are that HUD will only back loans for projects that are 70 percent presold and that there is no ongoing revenue stream for developers once the building is turned over to the co-op.

United Properties, a Minneapolis developer, just completed its 12th senior co-op in and around that city, where it has established a track record that makes marketing easier than it might be in a city or state where people aren’t familiar with the co-op concept.

“It’s not the path of least resistance if you’re a developer looking at what are my various options, but we as a company are committed to being in senior housing and we look at cooperatives as one of an array of opportunities there,” said Mark Nelson, senior executive vice president.

Brad Broberg is a Seattle-based freelance writer specializing in business and development issues. His work appears regularly in the Puget Sound Business Journal and the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.
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