The Rich-Poor Divide: The Biggest Barrier to Aging in Place May Be Money


New amenities and exciting tech is coming all the time. But affordability is a worrying issue. Photo: sorbetto/Getty Images

Longevity may be the most important trend we’ve ever experienced. It’s driven by — and in turn, it affects — everything from health to housing, money to technology, lifestyle to social policy. There’s so much to be aware of — and it’s just getting started! Now you can keep up with all the latest developments in this weekly column.


Everyone knows that the “older” generations want to age in place. And in response to that demand, a multi-billion dollar industry has been created … and is steadily growing. There’s now a dazzling menu of features that can make your home more suitable for aging, from architectural features to tech-driven facilities like “smart” diagnostics. I’ve consistently reported on many of these exciting developments.

But as this thoughtful article points out, all these new things are landing into a housing supply that’s not necessarily designed to receive them. Installing them can be expensive. And, there’s a serious rich-poor divide. “Aging in place” may turn out to be a financial challenge rather than a tech or product development issue.

The article grabbed my attention right off the bat, by highlighting how few homes can currently accommodate older residents: “While about 94 per cent of the 115 million homes in the U.S. had at least one aging-accessible feature, a 2020 Census Bureau report shows that just 10 per cent were ready to accommodate older residents. In other words, they had an entryway with no steps, a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor, and one or more bathroom accessibility features.”

The article cites a Census Bureau report that “almost 30 per cent of older adult already have trouble using some part of their home without assistance. That might mean getting up stairs, turning stiff faucets, getting into or out of their shower or reaching kitchen cabinets. That makes it not terribly surprising that about one in three adults say they will need to make major repairs or modifications as they or other family members age, according to the 2021 Home and Community Preference Survey from AARP.”

The list of modifications has no surprises: 79 per cent anticipate making bathroom modifications, 70 per cent plan for home access modifications at the entrance or inside and 60 per cent are looking to install a medical emergency response system.

But can they pay for it?

“As of 2019, more than 10 million households headed by someone aged 65 or older were cost-burdened (in other words, they spent more than one-third of their income on housing). About half of those households had spent more than 50 percent of their income on housing. People of color, renters, people with low incomes and the oldest age groups were disproportionately affected.”

Canadian statistics indicate the problem may be similar. There are 7.2 million Canadians who are 65+, of whom 5.7 million own their own home. (Source: Vividata) Could they easily upgrade or renovate to add “aging in place” features? Thirty-five per cent of those 5.7 million, or 2 million people, have household incomes of less than $50,000. And just under half of them, or about 800,000, say they already feel “overwhelmed” by financial burdens.

Now let’s look at the remaining 3.7 million people. Two thirds of them, or 2.3 million, have household incomes of $50,000 to $100,000 — not poverty, but not lavish, necessarily, considering it’s pre-tax income. That leaves only 1.3 million with incomes over $100,000, and a strong ability, presumably, to pay for the necessary amenities. In sum, less than a quarter of Canadians who are 65+ and own their own home could comfortably pay for aging in place. For the rest, it could be a struggle — or an outright impossibility.

Money isn’t the only variable. Where you age in place can also make a big difference.

“It helps to live in places where houses are more likely to have features that are better for older Americans. In the mid-Atlantic, for instance, just 6 per cent of homes have accessibility features that are naturally part of the area’s home style, according to census data. That’s compared to 14 per cent of homes in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas that were aging-ready.

“One issue is the number of floors a home has. Multi-storey homes are more common in New England and the mid-Atlantic, where they make up about 90 per cent of housing units in those areas. Why? Less land, for one. So instead of going out, houses went up. Out West and down South, where land is more readily available, single-storey homes are more typical (and also cheaper to cool in warmer climates).”

This would make modifications homes in the northeast more expensive because you’d more often be working with an older home and a home which has bedrooms and full bathrooms on the second floor.

On the other hand, the dollar value of your equity might be higher in the northeast markets, and you would have some scope to convert that equity into cash for the necessary renovation.

I think we need to do a lot more work on assessing the bridge between all the exciting “aging in place” products and services (particularly tech-driven) and the affordability question. I don’t doubt that the number of people who can afford all the bells and whistles, and will pay to acquire them, will add up to a massive (and highly profitable) market. But what about those who are left behind?

David Cravit is a Vice-President at ZoomerMedia, and Chief Membership Officer of CARP. He is also the author of two books on the “reinvention” of aging. You can check out some of his other writing here.