Boomers to Age in Place
William D. Novelli
Executive Director and CEO, AARP
Presented at 2002 Seniors Housing Symposium
National Association of Home Builders
May 1, 2002
FIf you're looking
for older Americans today-men and women 50 or older-don't look in
a rocking chair and don't even look around the old fishing hole.
You're much more likely to find people like these on Rollerblades
or the Internet: they are inline and online-and mainline. Older
people are not sitting off at the margins of our society. They are
spectators, not bystanders. They are active, curious, and savvy.
They have high expectations in life.
And that goes
double for Baby Boomers. All of us, in all businesses and walks
of life, have been talking about the Boomers, seemingly forever,
as "the coming generation." Even though they have been
setting the tone in American society for half a century, we keep
talking about what will happen when they get older or when do this
or do that.
something to think about. Just about a third of the Boomers are
50 or will turn 50 this year. That's one third of 76 million people
born between 1946 and 1964
some 25 million men and women.
And here's another thought. The youngest of them-the baby Baby Boomers-are
all pushing 40. For years, we've been getting ready for when the
Boomers hit their stride, when they hit middle age, when they hit
their prime earning years
well, guess what? They have hit
all those things, and pretty much hit everything else right out
of the park while they were at it.
We know a lot about the Boomers:
They love choice: set up the smorgasbord and let them help themselves.
They want information-and the more sources the better because
They are not afraid to make decisions-but only on their own
clock and in their own terms.
They want many things and they want them now. The ideal for typical
Baby Boomers is to have something delivered before they even knew
they wanted it
yesterday would be just fine.
They lean more to independence than blending in to the crowd.
They are usually fairly sophisticated buyers
of anything and
The love bells and whistles because they are bells and whistles.
But with all these apparently common characteristics, we must keep
something else in mind.
Baby Boomers are diverse-surely more diverse than their parents'
And they are diverse in all ways
Many Boomers are well off and looking toward the future with confidence,
even serenity. Many are plugging away and hoping for the best. And
still others have nothing put by and no pensions or savings for
their later years. These diverse qualities are every bit as important
to understand as the list of characteristics that many, many Boomers
share in common. Because one size will never fit all.
AARP-want to market to Baby Boomers, then you have to understand
these facts and characteristics of that generation. It's no secret
that Boomers have been demanding, and even very annoying, in the
course of their lifetimes. It is just as obvious, however, that
they have contributed a great deal to American society-and most
of all, they have done more to shape contemporary American society
than the generations on either side of them. So to understand them,
we must face the facts.
And that is
how we go about marketing to them. How do they see the world? What
are they looking for? What do we have that they want? And, what
can we have in the future that we do not yet have that they will
want? Those are the questions-and they represent AARP's approach
to reaching the Boomers.
for example, that the older Boomers especially may well share our
traditional interest in protecting and strengthening Social Security
and Medicare. And the younger ones will, in time. But older and
younger Boomers are more concerned with fitness and health, with
issues surrounding work, and with the transitions that come fast
and furious these days in the middle of one's life-like changing
careers, divorce, remarriage, starting a second family, launching
one's own business for the first time at 55 or older. You get the
And that's what
Boomers are really about-ideas. So, to understand them and to reach
them, you have to understand their ideas and have ideas-good ideas
of your own. That certainly applies to housing. Because here is
another characteristic of the Boomers that I have reserved for now:
They want to
live well and they want to live comfortably and they want to live
in familiar surroundings.
not be surprising. It certainly doesn't surprise us at AARP. For
years we have been surveying older Americans, and year after year
we have received the same response. Eight-five percent of older
people want to continue living where they are-at home. We can call
it aging in place or give it any name you like. We see it as part
of Independent Living, one of AARP's Life Choices issues-that is,
the important decisions people make later in life-that is critical
to older people. And let me stress that the results we have been
tabulating for many years do not apply only to the especially old.
They apply to people from the age of 45. Forty-five
This idea is
so important-and the Boomers are so diverse-that we understand it
is impossible to come up with one solution. But there are varying
techniques or modalities that can help people to age in place. We
have been thinking about them for more than a decade.
That was about the time I turned 50-but long before I had any association
with AARP other than a membership card in my wallet. I thought it
was a good deal
and it turned out to be even better than I
thought. Because it was about that time that AARP began to talk
about "Independent Living" as a basic concept of aging-not
a basic concept of AARP as an organization, mind you-but as something
relevant to individual men and women.
The first modality
of Independent Living was home modification. In many cases, then
as now, the idea was plain and straightforward. Will grab-bars in
the bathroom, a ramp up to the front porch, or better lighting in
the staircase enable people to stay in their own homes, in their
own communities-in the own, familiar lives-longer? The answer was
yes. It still is. And of course, modifying homes to make them more
livable-and less likely to be obstacle courses or accidents waiting
to happen-will continue to be important.
today, I am sure, is knowledgeable about our housing stock. You
know, certainly, that most homes in America-from the plushest to
the simplest-were not designed to be age friendly or, as we like
to say 50+ friendly. I don't even offer that as criticism: it's
just a fact. But that fact points the way. The more people who want
to stay in their own homes, the more opportunities there will be
for modifications, for remodeling, for upgrading.
But this leads
to a more important thought. In the last generation or two, housing
in America has changed. Think of materials-like wooden I-beams that
are lighter, stronger, and cheaper than 2-by-12 joists, like double-glazed
tilt windows, like PVC pipe. Or think of amenities-like master bedroom
suites, built-in vacuum systems, and external safety lighting. Houses,
townhouses, and apartments these days are very different-and generally
very much more desirable-than residences built in the 50s and 60s
of course, is accommodation for people as they age. With a few notable
and praiseworthy exceptions, contemporary American housing-from
this particular point of view-has not changed at all. The advanced
materials and the amenities notwithstanding, many brand-new and
desirable houses and apartments have too much in common with houses
built 100 years ago-when life expectancy was less than 50. Today,
life expectancy averages nearly 80. And those added years mean not
just more time, but a vitality bonus. Older people are living longer
and better-and they will live the best and happiest possible lives
in housing that catches up with them.
Thus, modifying older residences is important. But it seems every
bit as important to begin to value-and to invest in-another modality
of aging in place. And that is "universal home design."
Now I am sure that this phrase is familiar to you, but let me stress
the obvious anyway. What we are talking about is not "home
design for the elderly" or "retirement home design,"
but design that is universal, that accommodates needs of people
of all ages. Sometimes, to be sure, we refer to "homes for
all ages." I think I can illustrate this point by quoting Jeff
Baum whose company Adapt-Able Designs renovates homes and businesses
for wheelchair access. Why, he asks, should there by steps leading
up to the front door in a house that may be bought by a young family
or an older couple? "It's young mothers with strollers,"
he observes, "as well as an aging person who has mobility issues."
Universal design is intended to be friendly-or easy to navigate-for
anyone. This simple, obvious point is really a very important idea.
Universal design-and its companion, "visitability"-are
not focused on one generation. And it is most certainly not special
pleading for one generation at the expense of others. Not at all.
I think it is enlightening to realize that steps at the front door
pose an equal challenge to a stroller and a wheelchair.
incorporates several aspects of universal home design. Its basic
ingredients are simple.
A no-step entrance
to the dwelling-and it can be front, side, or rear.
enough to accommodate a wheelchair-in practical terms, 32 inches
of passage space.
with a wide doorway on the first floor.
of visitability obviously offer ease of mobility for those in wheel
chairs or those who walk with difficulty. They also make it easier
to maneuver strollers and carry large armloads of groceries. A wide
hallway, if not needed at present for wheelchair space, can make
a wonderful place to put up bookshelves and still leave plenty of
room for walking. In other words, all these design elements make
homes more flexible-and more likely places to age in place.
It was Eleanor
Smith, herself a person with disabilities, who popularized the concept
of visitability in the United States. She has pointed out over and
over what I have just said: that what accommodates a person with
disabilities may also be a boon to anyone else. Basic access, she
has said, should be built in, like the wiring and the plumbing.
And she is correct. Basic access makes sense. We are not all the
same. Not everyone can bound up two or three stairs to get in the
front door, and many people don't want to. Why, after all, build
a house with barriers when even the fittest people don't want-or
need-to contend with them?
We also know
that building things in-from the blueprints and then from the ground
up-is both cheaper and more efficient than adding on later. We've
been doing what we can to encourage this. In Georgia, AARP has worked
as part of a diverse coalition that includes homebuilders and representatives
of the disability community to introduce a voluntary certification
program that recognizes developers and builders who enhance accessibility
and visitability standards in new home construction. It's called
the Easy Living Home certificate of approval program. As you know,
it was announced at your national conference last year that we were
initiating this effort, and I'm pleased to say that the program
was officially launched this past Monday in a subdivision just outside
of Atlanta where a local builder has constructed several EasyLiving
Home Certificate of Approval program is a first-in-the-nation effort
to spur basic home design modifications to greatly benefit the independent
living needs of an aging population and to reward homebuilders who
help break ground in the movement to make homes easy to live in
and easy to visit.
To be certified
as EasyLiving, a home must have:
" Easy Entrance-a zero step outside entrance for safe and easy
" Easy Passage-ample width doorways
minimum 32 inches
the main floor, including the entrance, and
" Easy Use-at least one bedroom and a full bathroom on the
The idea is to encourage the building of visitable homes-the final
goal being "to make homes more user friendly for ALL ages and
and to set standards and provide more opportunities
for everyone in the community."
But please note
that I said the idea is to encourage and the goal is to provide
more opportunities. In other words, I am talking again about marketing.
About free markets
and imagination. The market is there. Even
if you assume that visitable housing is really for people over 50-an
idea I will dispute with you-just consider these facts:
People 50+ are more than a third of the population, but
They own 80 percent of financial assets and
The dispose of 50 percent of discretionary income and
The 50+ population is going to double in the next 35 years.
And let me remind you about the Boomers-even the very youngest of
them who, remember, are nearing 40. Many of them are looking ahead.
Many of them are looking at their own parents who need some help
or perhaps a great deal. Despite any young-forever feelings the
Boomers may have, they see their parents and they know that one
day they will be like them and, most probably will live even longer.
And they too, like their immediate elders, want to age in place.
Put these facts together and you have, in my opinion and the opinion
of AARP, a very powerful inducement to accommodate this market.
There will be
many ways to do that. A little while ago, I mentioned new building
materials and new amenities. I could have added new and better building
techniques, materials handling equipment, computer-aided design,
and so forth. We all know-we are all used to-the amazing rate of
technological change. I think the changes we will see in the building
industry will make it easier and cheaper as time goes by to design-in
and build-in even more qualities of home access.
I have heard that one way to add flexibility would be to have adjustable
kitchen counters. The way kitchens are designed and built now, it
is possible to do so-but only because anything is possible for a
price. And the price, as I'm sure you can all calculate, is staggeringly
high. Some day, it may not be. I mention this not because I believe
in pie in the sky, but only to underscore the importance of keeping
an eye toward the future-to keeping an eye on the technologies and
the ideas that may enable us to deliver some things which now, we
accurately believe, are beyond our means.
But the things
I have discussed-zero-step doors and wide doorways, for example-are
beyond neither our means nor our abilities. Nor, as I hope my facts
and figures have shown, beyond the market. To the contrary: they
are focused dead center on a prosperous and growing and highly demanding
market. I make this observation for two reasons.
First, I am
and have always been a marketing guy. I have taken great pride in
my efforts in social marketing-and I believe accessibility and visitability
are yet additional steps in that direction. But second, beyond the
personal, there is this. I think those things that will help people
to age in place should be driven by the market, by true demand.
I know that Atlanta and Austin and Puma County have ordinances requiring
some visitability elements in publicly supported housing. AARP certainly
doesn't take issue with that.
But I am convinced
that it is more important to understand that building-in the components
of accessibility and visitability is good business and good construction.
I know that NAHB's Seniors Housing Council is already promoting
voluntary accessibility and visitability standards to your membership.
That is wonderful-good for you.
And we have been working with you on the CAPS program to create
"Certified Aging in Place Specialists." This is a training
program will be offered through state homebuilders associations
to home remodelers. It includes modules on working with older adults,
the normal aging process, demographics, home modifications, home
assessments, and marketing to older adults. Upon completion of the
training, remodelers will receive a certificate that declares them
to be a Certified Aging in Place Specialist.
to be promoting this program to our members and the general public,
and we will list those certified specialists on our website, so
that our members will know that there are remodelers out there who
have received some specialized training in aging and in designing
age friendly homes.
And if we want
to call all of these steps to increase access and visitability "voluntary
compliance," then we can. But I'd rather call it "marketing
added value." You can do that. That, after all, is your business.
New building practices, like anything new, can be difficult-at first.
And new techniques can add costs-or appear to. But the building
industry in recent years has been remarkably efficient in capturing
economies of scale. The values you offer to the Boomers and to the
Boomers' parents will be repaid to you. These people have an eye
for value, and you can show them the values they will be receiving.
And AARP wants
to continue our efforts to help you. It will be our business to
continue to lead in consumer education, to enable Americans 50+
to understand the values in flexible or universal home design. In
that way, we will help to increase demand for the right designs
delivered with the right quality and with great value. Most of all
our role is to be a friend and a collaborator. We want
to bridge gaps and differences among consumers, the building industry,
and public agencies so that they see eye to eye and act to one another's
advantage. We believe in finding collaborators, not opponents or
is important. There are no sides to choose up, no line in the sand.
We're all on the same side and we're all part of the same enterprise.
After all, everyone is getting older-I am, you are-and everyone
needs a place to live. The aging of America is not about to stop
any time soon. To understand what kind of housing an aging America
will need, and then to design, build, and deliver it is really a
remarkable-not to say tempting-opportunity for anyone who wants
to seize it. And everyone can seize it. There is room for all.
And the final
news-and perhaps the best-is that by doing well you can do good.
Because helping people to age in place will contribute to healthier,
safer, and happier lives for millions and millions of American men
and women. Including you and me.