Housing Groups Should Expand to Repair Work to Help Seniors Age in Place

Before school Oliver used to collect baskets of wood that his father would sell. That was his way of contributing to the effort of saving money for a lot on which to build a house. His father always stressed that Oliver should save his money and invest in a home of his own. So in 1977 Oliver bought the house he had lived in for 39 years in Memphis, Tennessee.

It took several months to strip off the three layers of wallpaper that covered every room, but finally, the last layer of paper—a sea of begonias—came down and the plaster walls were clean.

Oliver, who is 73, raised three children in his home and feels such a sense of belonging in the neighborhood he has known all his life.

But the years took a toll on the century-old home with its scalloped exterior and inviting porch. In 2012 a corner of the floor in Oliver’s bedroom dropped three to four inches, the foundation had crumbled, and he had termites. He had to move his bed so it would not fall through and stuff a blanket in the hole to block the draft. Oliver was so grateful when Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis shored up the foundation and repaired the floor. They also replaced the decking and the roof, repaired plumbing in the kitchen, and made other repairs to make the home more energy efficient. Oliver said his utility bills dropped more than $70 a month after the work was done.

Another Habitat project in 2014 brought volunteers in to paint the exterior of his home and landscape his yard.

The repairs and rehabilitation were just what Oliver needed. “It looks like a brand new house, right in the same place,” he said.

Oliver is one of an increasing number of older adults who want to grow old in their own homes. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that 46.2 million Americans were 65 years and older in 2014. That figure is expected to grow to more than 70 million in 2030 and more than 80 million by 2050.

According to AARP, 90 percent of older adults nationwide want to remain living in their homes for as long as possible, and 4 of 5 in that age bracket believe their current home is where they will always live. Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation, says, “When older adults are able to [remain at home], the advantages multiply. Quality of life improves . . . both individuals and governments realize cost savings when institutional care is avoided. Communities also benefit from intergenerational engagement.”

This effort to help seniors remain in their homes—to live safely, independently, and comfortably—is known as aging in place. Collaborative efforts are crucial to help seniors with ongoing issues such as safe and adequate housing, health care, nutrition, transportation, and socialization programs. Housing is a growing concern since some homes may not be designed to accommodate the needs of aging homeowners, and older homes are also likely to need repairs and modifications— which many seniors cannot afford or physically do themselves. Habitat for Humanity International is partnering with AARP Foundation to build a holistic program to help seniors in a number of communities with critical repairs and home modifications, as well as other services.

With the affordable housing crisis as desperate as it has ever been, preserving existing housing stock is a critical part of the solution. This is especially true for seniors. The cost of moving into a new home or facility would be prohibitive for many, so being able to remain at home—in a safe home that can accommodate the challenges of growing older—provides security and stability for a growing population.

Aging in place issues will receive some special attention this month from Habitat’s most famous volunteer, Jimmy Carter, who is almost 92. He and his wife Rosalynn will join volunteers from around the world for the 33rd Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project in Memphis. Among the tasks for the week will be new construction and beautification projects as well as six aging in place projects to build ramps.

“Here in Memphis, we have added critical repairs and beautification projects to our efforts and have begun to address the needs of senior citizens who want to retain their independence and remain in their own homes longer,” said Memphis Habitat’s CEO Dwayne Spencer. “So it was important that we include those housing strategies in the Carter Work Project.”

It will take efforts by all sectors of society in every community to help seniors age in place. Resources such as these will be crucial in assisting an aging population.  Recognizing and supporting their contributions will be just as important.

(Photo above via Flickr user Bournemouth Borough Council, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Jonathan T.M. Reckford is chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity International, a nonprofit Christian housing organization that, since 1976, has helped more than 5 million people construct, rehabilitate or preserve homes in more than 70 countries. Jonathan serves on the boards of InterAction, the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the Duke Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship and Industrial Heat. He is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Urban Steering Committee for the World Economic Forum. He is the author of a book titled Creating a Habitat for Humanity: No Hands but Yours.


  1. This is a fine idea. No question.

    But in the “Yes and…” category there is similar need for information, help to organize transportation and services and a push to prepare homes among middle and upper middle income. There is little policy, no government resources and no not-for-profit assistance.

    If we truly believe in Aging in Place we need policies, like we have in areas like renewable energy and transportation that incentivizes private investment aligned with national priorities.

    My organization, http://www.HomesRenewe.org is focused on updating our housing infrastructure for middle class as well as those with very limited resources.

  2. hello:
    more than 6 yrs ago…
    wondering if Habitat is still partnering for older people’s housing needs. This article is the
    1st I’ve seen mentioning that effort. Interesting as to the shorter residence/financing (I’m 70 y/o, I wont be around as long as a 3, 4 member family – the type of Habitat projects I’m familiar with.
    In Community,
    – -Chad


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