When we baby boomers think about retirement, most of us envision ourselves living in the homes we've occupied for most of our adult lives.
Who could blame us? We like those old places. They hold our rich family histories. They feel like home.
And, let's be honest. Being able to stay where we've always been is an outward sign that nothing has changed -- or has to change -- as we age. We've still "got it." We're still vibrant and independent. We can still make it on our own.
As I get older, I wonder how realistic this mindset really is.
After all, we can't all stay put indefinitely. Many of us are going to have to move sooner or later.
Reasons You May Have to Move
In recent years, I've watched many friends abandon the homes they thought would serve them until the end of their days.
These friends had many -- and sometimes quite unexpected -- reasons for moving.
Sure, a few friends moved from multi-story dwellings when stair-climbing became an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous exercise. But that wasn't the norm. Surprisingly, most of my friends moved for reasons associated with lifestyle and economics.
- They grew tired of mowing the lawn and cleaning the gutters -- or paying someone else to do those chores.
- They felt isolated in their suburban neighborhoods and decided they didn't want to get in the car every time they planned an outing.
- Some moved because they simply could not afford to stay. Their mortgages were paid off, but their property taxes and maintenance costs had grown way beyond their means. Even some lifelong renters found that their retirement incomes could not keep pace with their rising rents.
Before each move, my friends went through a pretty intense soul-searching process. Where would they go? What kind of home would suit them best? What if they couldn't find what they were looking for? What if they couldn't afford what they were looking for?
We all ask these questions at one point or another after age 50. Fortunately, my job as a researcher in the field of aging services gives me access to resources that can help frame the answers. And sometimes those resources come from unexpected places.
Learning Lessons from Affordable Housing
I recently served on a five-person jury for the 2015 Innovation in Affordable Housing Student Design and Planning Competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The competition challenged teams of graduate students to update and revitalize the design of Bayou Towers, an 11-story affordable housing property located about 75 miles southwest of New Orleans.
The student design proposals were tailored to a government-subsidized housing property where low-income older people live. But the designs that students submitted can and should be applied to all housing for the over-50 set.
Based on what I learned from some very creative graduate students, I think your next home should have these six features.
1. Your next home should reflect local culture.
We all want to live in a place that has a distinct identity -- preferably one that reflects the cultural flavor of our geographic region and connects us to the things we love.
The student competitors understood that. They worked hard to incorporate Louisiana's Cajon culture into their designs for Bayou Towers. A primary element of that culture is a great love for and connection to the outdoors.
Honoring that culture meant adding balconies to all apartments, creating walking paths dotted with native plants, adding pedestrian access to a nearby park and waterfront, and even installing a rooftop vegetable garden where tenants could grow their own food.
2. Your next home should connect you with the outside world.
Simply living near more people doesn't always translate into feeling more connected to them.
The HUD competitors got that. They understood that residents of Bayou Towers want to remain active and vibrant members of their community. Your next home should make it easy for you to do the same thing.
Every design in the HUD competition included attractive and flexible community space where building residents could socialize, exercise, share meals, use computers and attend educational programs.
The designs also invited the outside community to visit Bayou Towers frequently, either by patronizing retail establishments on its first floor, attending farmers' markets on its grounds, or dropping children off at its onsite child care center.
3. Your next home should support aging in place.
You've moved once, so you won't want to move again anytime soon. Make sure your next home will suit you -- and support you -- for the next 10, 20 or 30 years.
The HUD competitors paid a lot of attention to providing space that would grow with tenants as they aged.
Their designs provided easy access to onsite health care services, and to programs that would promote wellness or deliver community-based services if they were ever needed. Many students incorporated universal design features into apartment designs to ensure that people of all ages could comfortably navigate entrances, bathrooms and kitchens.
4. Your next home should be energy efficient.
You'll definitely want to move to a building that will keep you comfortable all year round -- without sending your utility bills through the roof.
The steamy climate of southern Louisiana had a big influence on how students designed the heating and cooling systems at Bayou Towers.
Extended overhangs kept the sun's heat from penetrating apartment windows, while solar panels supplied the building with inexpensive hot water. Storm water retention systems collected gray water that could be used to flush toilets and irrigate landscaping.
The students presented evidence that these and other earth-friendly strategies could translate into substantial energy savings for the building and its tenants.
5. Your next home must be affordable.
I wish I could advise you to look for affordable housing in your community. I won't do that because I'm afraid you're unlikely to find it.
Clearly, we need a lot more affordable housing, and not just for low-income people. We also need housing that fits the budgets of middle-income people, many of whom are worrying about money for the first time in their lives.
You can help with this. Talk to your town, county and state officials about the need to ensure that the local housing market includes plenty of dwellings that you and your friends can afford.
6. Your next home should be based on research.
Finally, look for a developer who has thought through the design of your next home. Anyone can create a "well-appointed" lobby or a fancy work-out room. You're looking for a building designed carefully to meet your preferences and needs for many years to come.
That kind of design doesn't happen overnight. It requires a lot of research -- research on the 50+ market, research on technology and building construction innovations, and research on the needs and preference of people our age.
That research, if it's robust, will ensure that your next home does what it's intended to do: help you stay healthy, connected, supported, more secure financially -- and, if you're lucky, downright happy -- for many years to come.
You're worth it. So let's make sure you get it.