Giving Thought: Older adults are part of the housing conversation

Allison Alexander
Giving Thought

While the workforce-housing crisis is certainly of concern to many in our region, there is an often forgotten population that is struggling and left out of much of the narrative. Older adults in our community are increasingly finding themselves without housing or in tenuous housing situations.

The phrase “silver tsunami” has been coined to describe the phenomenon being felt around the country. While the term itself has been argued as ageist, what it represents per shifting demographics is important to consider when thinking about our community. There is a rising number of older adults in our community living in financially precarious situations and need extra support as they age, with few housing options.

Further adding to this issue is that many older adults do not have adult children or family members who might be able to offer support. This creates the potential for instability and is forcing our aging adults to make difficult decisions or endure housing situations that are not ideal for quality of life.

Alpine Legal Services is a local non-profit dedicated to advancing justice in our community and improving lives through legal advocacy, outreach, and education. They work in a variety of ways to support a number of vulnerable populations in our community, including aging adults.

Jennifer Wherry, executive director of Alpine Legal Services, said the majority of people in our region start off very healthy and that, as they age, life becomes more challenging as they are not able to work or engage socially in the same ways, and this impacts their mental and physical health.

The lack of housing options for adults on fixed incomes adds to health struggles. As research has shown, housing stress can compound all other indicators of health, creating crises.

“If you have a stable home, you have a chance to thrive,” according to Wherry.

Even with social support, life can be difficult to navigate for aging adults in our communities. She said that many older adults pay approximately $800 a month for rent, while their Social Security income is around $1,000 per month, so very little is left over.

Additionally, some older adults have been benefiting from COVID-era benefits to support access to food, and these benefits are set to expire in the near future.

“It’s about to get even harder for older adults who are already struggling,” said Wherry.

With a limited housing inventory, community members who find themselves in the fortunate position of accessing a rental unit are often reluctant to report issues to landlords, like uninhabitable conditions or abusive neighbors.

Wherry indicated there is a hesitancy to speak up out of fear their already difficult lives will be made worse. Residents and landlords, alike, are aware there can be a waiting list of people waiting for a unit.

In other cases, residents are unaware of their rights in dealing with their landlords in instances when eviction is involved or threatened. She said that there are special laws and rules in place for many of the types of units older adults are living in, and that part of Alpine Legal Services’ work is educating not only residents, but also working to inform landlords, property managers, and housing authorities to ensure minimal disruption to residents’ lives. They encourage conversations and mediation to de-escalate issues as they arise.

As a result of the housing struggles many older adults face, Wherry is seeing many leave the region, making the hard decision to leave the community they devoted the past 30 or more years towards, to find housing in Denver or Grand Junction.

There are many who believe a community can be evaluated by the way it cares for its most vulnerable, including older adults who helped build the community.

“If we are lucky enough to grow older, we should receive support,” says Wherry.

While both the housing problem and figuring out support for a growing population of older adults can feel too daunting to tackle as individuals, there are ways to help. She said that one of the best ways community members can help someone struggling is to identify resources, share them, and then follow up on whether a resource was able to help.

In many cases, she said, people share the resource and move on, but, because systems are burdened and vulnerable adults are often reluctant to continue to reach out repeatedly, issues go unresolved. Follow-up is critical.

While we are not able to retroactively build systems to improve the lives of our older adults immediately, we can collectively take action to support the members of our community who have devoted their lives to building it, by stepping in as we are able. We have an opportunity to become a community that supports all of its members at every stage of life.

Allison Alexander is the director of strategic partnerships and communications for the Aspen Community Foundation, which, with the support of its donors, works with non-profits in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys.