Planning Magazine

Finding Solutions for Older Adults to Age in Grace

By considering the needs of a burgeoning senior population, planners can promote creative and community-focused housing options.

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Bridge Meadows, an intergenerational community in North Portland, Oregon, is a cohousing community offering affordable housing for older adults. To bring together the residents, a 6,200-square-foot courtyard acts as the backyard for approximately 75 children, parents, and elders who call it home. Image courtesy of Bridge Meadows.

When today's older adults think about how to spend their golden years, the picture they paint is more active and energetic than previous generations. Building new housing to accommodate these more engaged, community-focused older adults often requires forethought and energy on the part of builders.

Examples of this new take on senior living can be found across America — from Oregon to Illinois. And in Loveland, Colorado, efforts are underway to build a pocket neighborhood called Kallimos Communities, envisioned as a small, walkable, multigenerational village. It's currently clouded by knotty regulations, overlapping agency involvement, and planning challenges. After more than a year of proposals and negotiation, the project is making progress — but construction hasn't started.

"It's outside the box, and we don't fit inside the box, so we're working with a lot of entities to create a new box," says Megan Marama, chief operating officer of Kallimos. The company plans to submit a final plan in early 2024 and hopes to use that momentum to push through the design and development processes.

More of these types of projects need to break ground — and fast.

A severe shortage of affordable and accessible housing for America's oldest adults, exacerbated by the same kinds of zoning and building code challenges hampering overall housing supply, is getting worse as the nation's senior population rapidly expands. Urban planners will need to use creative solutions and new approaches to planning and zoning to prioritize the creation of new, age-friendly housing in communities.

"Frankly, planners and many others have been able to get by for years by not necessarily focusing on aging needs, because there has been a relatively small percentage of older adults in the overall population," says Rodney Harrell, vice president of family, home, and community for AARP's Public Policy Institute. "That's going to change when well over 20 percent of the population will soon be over 65."

The coming crash of the 'silver tsunami'

The nation's overall housing supply already faces a severe shortage and challenges, according to the report America's Rental Housing 2024 by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS), as the number of renter households spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities has reached a new high of 22.4 million, while the median age of renters is now 44.

There's a significant shortage of affordable, accessible, and age-friendly housing for the nation's senior population, which is set to rapidly expand in a demographic shift being called the "silver tsunami." The number of Americans aged 65 and older in the U.S. has soared by over 34 percent in the last decade, while the country's housing supply hasn't kept pace.

The problem will only be exacerbated, says Jennifer Molinsky, a former planner and current project director of the Housing an Aging Society Program at JCHS. As the overall senior population increases in average age, there likely will be more householders aged 80 and up, and older renters will continue to see higher monthly housing payments and stagnant incomes — a dire forecast.

Rodney Harrell, vice president of family, home, and community for AARP's Public Policy Institute, talks about accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and other options for affordable age-friendly housing.

In its 2023 Housing America's Older Adults report, JCHS declared that there was an "enormous unmet need," and found 11.2 million older adults are housing-cost burdened. JCHS found that there are now more cost-burdened renters, across all generations, than has ever been measured in modern U.S. history. These housing challenges make financial stresses, medical challenges, loneliness, and mental health issues worse. Meanwhile, an AARP article on senior homelessness stated that one in five Americans "without a permanent place to live" are over 55 — underscoring the need to close the senior housing gap and create rental options.

Traditional senior housing plays a role in solving this shortfall, but expanding housing options and retrofitting existing housing is needed, too — particularly in the suburbs and exurbs, Molinsky says.

"There's a misconception that the main way to think about housing for older adults is senior living facilities," says Harrell. "We need to have affordable options throughout the housing stock and in all our communities for people of all ages, including older adults."

Planners that see this silver tsunami can plan for it. AARP research found nine out of 10 Americans over 65 want to stay in their communities as long as possible, so focusing on increasing density, walkability, and car-free transit options in existing communities are important. Harrell underscores the value of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to provide seniors with more housing options or to provide rental income for people who want to stay in their homes. Additionally, planners and cities can incentivize builders to focus on age-friendly, age-in-place features, including more accessible design, as a tradeoff for density bonuses.

One agency that has hit the ground running is the planning department in Loveland, Colorado, the proposed home of Kallimos. Planners have actively encouraged clusters of small, cottage-type homes by creating a new lot type in a recent code update. Urban cottage lots are meant to allow developments in spaces smaller than the current 3,500-square-foot standard lot and are tailor-made for these concepts. They've also altered standard wide roads to include wider sidewalks, narrow lanes, and more visible pedestrian crosswalks to make the development more walkable for seniors.

Projects proving housing is health

These are changes that, like so many planning best practices, benefit residents of all demographics. And while Loveland City Planner Kerri Burchett, AICP, says the Colorado community has been focused on tackling the affordability issue — Loveland's median home price is $518,500 — she has found that solving problems for seniors can create a domino effect.

By incentivizing and allowing owners to split land into smaller lots, older homeowners can sell parts of their property and age in place. Density bonuses create more opportunities for affordable senior rentals, which can entice older residents to move out of their multiple-bedroom, single-family homes, getting those units back into the market for younger families. The urban cottage lot concept will hopefully catalyze new, more affordable projects that achieve townhome density, but maintain individual yards.

The need is clear. "We have a 4,000-household waitlist for affordable housing in Loveland, which has a population of 80,000," says Burchett. "And a third of [those are] senior or older adult households."

Communal garden boxes – located at the edge of a 5,800-square-foot meadow – are a favorite activity for residents of Bridge Meadows Beaverton in Oregon, where they grow everything from sunflowers to tomatoes. The cohousing community opened in 2017 and is home to 70 children, parents, and elders. Image courtesy of Bridge Meadows.

Gardening in communal garden boxes is a favorite activity for residents of Bridge Meadows Beaverton in Oregon, where they grow everything from sunflowers to tomatoes. Image courtesy of Bridge Meadows.

Accessible older adult housing becomes more effective when projects go beyond housing, Molinsky says. She advocates for solutions that lean toward common spaces, shared meals, and service coordinators — a step before assisted living that invests in and realizes the health benefits of community engagement.

This has been a rallying cry for intergenerational developments across the nation, which deliberately pair older and younger populations. Bridge Meadows in Oregon has developed four facilities that house seniors along with foster children and their foster parents. The arrangement gives elders emotional and social support, helping them live with more "meaning and purpose," says Derenda Schubert, the nonprofit's executive director.

Previous Bridge Meadows multifamily developments, where the organization functioned as a codeveloper, ran up against zoning regulations that required additional approvals and conditional use permits, which raised development costs and hampered affordability. Schubert advocates for more zoning flexibility.

Size matters too. Schubert likes capping these developments below 50 units to create smaller, more deliberate communities. That can be challenging because many incentive programs for affordable housing target and support larger projects. Changing these formulas would allow developers to target smaller plots of land and do more infill projects, integrating their projects within denser urban areas.

"I would love to see housing agencies put aside some money for these creative ideas that have long-term effects," she says. "We are a long-term investment. Elders stay happy and healthy here. They don't pass away at a hospital or nursing home. They live out their lives here, reducing costs on other systems. Planners think about housing — but housing is health."

In Chicago, the city has helped pioneer a series of colocation projects, which pair new or rehabbed public library branches with affordable housing development. Local builder Evergreen Real Estate Group has been involved in a pair of these projects that place senior housing above libraries, cutting costs on both projects and creating de facto senior centers and gathering spaces between the stacks.

Independence Branch Library and Apartments, a six-story, mixed-use development built in 2019 in Chicago’s Irving Park neighborhood, features 44 units of affordable rental housing for older adults. Image courtesy of John Ronan Architects.

Independence Branch Library and Apartments, a six-story, mixed-use development built in 2019 in Chicago's Irving Park neighborhood, features 44 units of affordable rental housing for older adults above a public library. Image courtesy of John Ronan Architects.

Evergreen Director of Development David Block, AICP, extolled the virtue of allowing different kinds of nonretail tenants on the ground floor of such developments, noting that regulations tend to mandate retail tenants on the ground floor. By making it possible for the Chicago Housing Authority and Chicago Public Library to collaborate, these facilities not only foster community cohesion but also connect residents to existing urban amenities, including transportation networks. The developer is now exploring another such project in Denver.

Location can be crucial

A key advantage of these new forms of senior housing is proximity. Building amid existing neighborhoods and public infrastructure allows for overlapping services and cheaper, quicker access to community, retail, medical services, and support. Matthias Hollwich, founder of HWKN Architecture and author of the book New Aging, believes office-to-senior housing conversions offer extensive benefits in dense neighborhoods across New York City and elsewhere. The architect is currently developing a concept called FLX Live, with aims to set up projects in Chicago and Toronto.

An impediment to launching these projects, from a planning perspective, comes from zoning rigidity. Many cities strictly separate residential and commercial use, especially in office districts. Allowing more mixed-use development makes these types of conversions — which become more and more feasible as office vacancies hit a national record — faster and more affordable.

If planners begin with older adults in mind — inserting them into conversations by centering them in building codes, zoning rules, transportation plans, and community engagement — they can encourage an evolution toward age-friendly communities.

Small steps, like altering park planning to include more benches and restrooms, or bigger changes, like zoning reform that encourages dense neighborhoods, can help everyone — not just seniors. Looking at planning through an intergenerational lens, says Schubert, can unlock new solutions for long-standing challenges.

"We've got to break outside of our normal, day-to-day, this-is-the-only-way-it-works approach," says Marama. "Small tweaks make significant differences."


An earlier version of this article misrepresented a statistic from an AARP article. That article noted that among people experiencing homelessness, one in five are over the age of 55. Planning regrets the error.

Patrick Sisson, a Los Angeles–based writer and reporter focused on the tech, trends, and policies that shape cities, is a Planning contributing writer.