The numbers have confirmed what we’ve long anticipated: Senior citizens are becoming an unprecedentedly large proportion of the U.S. population. Last year, the first members of the Baby Boom generation — some 72 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, plus immigrants of the same age — turned 65. Today, about 13% of all Americans are senior citizens. Demographers predict that by 2030, that number will increase to 20% — or one in every five Americans. That leaves one very important question: Where are we going to put them all?
Their sheer numbers have always made the Boomers an unusually powerful cohort, and critics have long accused them of advancing their own interests rather than the common good. Political commentator Paul Begala once called Boomers, “the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in American history.” The current worry is that as aging Boomers retired, they will grow even more selfish, hoarding scarce resources, such as healthcare and assisted living, at the expense of future generations.
But there’s still time for the Boomers to use their clout for the betterment of the future. Why couldn’t they harness their wealth and political power to campaign for high-quality, publicly subsidized housing for the millions of senior citizens who are in need of better support? Sure, it’s not wholly selfless, since they’ll be the first to benefit. But in this case they could be forgiven, or maybe even appreciated, because building better places for themselves today will provide younger Americans with better choices tomorrow.
Some of the impending crisis has to do with a sociological shift towards aging alone. In 1950, only 10% of elderly Americans lived solo. Today, a full third live alone, as do 40% of those over age 85. Aging alone isn’t always a hardship. On the contrary, older people who live alone often spend more time with friends and neighbors than those who are married. But those who do become disconnected suffer immeasurably and become vulnerable to all kinds of health problems.
The most affluent Boomers will buy themselves out of this problem by moving into assisted-living facilities. For most Americans, however, high-quality supportive housing is prohibitively expensive. A report published by the trade publication Assisted Living Executive estimates the monthly rent for a typical room at about $3,500, or $42,600 per year, and residents who need special services, such as home care or medication reminders, pay even more.
Building the kinds of assisted living facilities that are now available only to the affluent elderly would require an enormous investment, and in some respects this is a terrible time to advocate for it. The economy is sluggish. The federal government faces record deficits. The cost of other benefits, like healthcare and prescription drugs, is already high.
But there are also reasons to believe that the timing for such an endeavor couldn’t be better. We’re beginning to see the dangers of fiscal austerity, both at home and in Europe. Paul Krugman and other leading Keynesian economists argue that a genuine recovery will require significant public investments in worthwhile projects. Building affordable housing for the elderly is a useful way to improve our physical infrastructure, create jobs and relieve the burden on working families that are paying dearly to provide for their older relatives.
Boomers should recognize the value of improving the nation’s housing for seniors. After all, many have struggled to care for their own parents (perhaps they don’t really deserve that self-absorbed reputation), and they know from experience that aging is much easier when there’s support.
For now, aging alone is a private matter that is managed individually, usually at a great personal and financial cost. And it’s only going to get worse if something doesn’t change soon. Boomers can help to fix the problem that they’ve in part created by developing collective solutions to address the needs of their own immense generation and those of the future. What a last act that would be.