Home is Where the Boomer Heart Is…For Now

In the past three years since AARP announced survey results showing that eight in 10 Boomers are planning to stay in their homes and communities for as long as possible as they age, the “aging in place dialog” has been gradually heating up from low to medium. We think the talk of aging in place will reach medium-high by the end of 2015 when the oldest Boomer turns 68 and the youngest turns 50. That’s when the generation known for living in the present will have begun to experience those little challenges signaling a change is gonna come.

The challenges facing Boomers include foot problems, joints giving out and needing to be replaced, arthritic fingers and hands, balance issues, trouble standing up without grabbing an armrest, rocking back and forth or pushing up from the chair seat. Yes, all the stuff that affected Grandma and Grandpa is still affecting Grandma and Grandpa, only now the Boomers, whether they embrace it or not, are the elders. BUT – and this is in caps for a reason – Boomers will always be cool, will always “think young,” will always be “involved,” and will not tolerate being considered old, feeble, sick or boring.

Leading edge Boomers, now in their 60’s, were the first of the generation to notice their disappearance from the marketing mix in recent years. During the past decade, Generations X and Y took over the mindsets of marketers eager to get a piece of the spending-money pie of young people leaving the nests of their Boomer parents. This shift in marketing focus really didn’t seem to matter because most older Boomers were busy dealing with their jobs, their kids in college, their kids getting married, their money falling prey to the economy, their kids going to war, their parents needing assistance and care, their kids moving back home because they couldn’t find work, their charities and churches, grand-parenting, traveling, yoga, Pilates, rock concerts, recycling, and, well, you get the drift.

Most Boomers found time during the past decade to become “second wave adopters” of all the new technology their kids used, as long as usage of that technology made sense in their own lives. Even if they didn’t see themselves in the ads, they bought new smart phones, readers and tablets. They spent big bucks on cars from Lexus and Ford and learned how to use the GPS. They bought flat screen HDTV’s from Best Buy; gigantic gas grills from Home Depot; desks and sofas from IKEA; dishes from Pottery Barn; accessories from Restoration Hardware; clothes from Nordstrom, Macy’s and Target; gourmet treats from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s; toothpaste and nail polish from CVS and Walgreen’s; and toys for their children and grandchildren at WalMart.

What Boomers did not enjoy were print and TV commercials targeting them for age-related products or services. Those ads were okay for their parents, aunts and uncles but not for themselves. They still don’t appreciate “generational media”featuring too many ads about inhalers for COPD, Medicare supplemental insurance, incontinence products, bone density medications, hearing aids, vitamins and mobility devices. If this kind of advertising is interspersed with ads for Taco Bell, Budweiser and a nearby casino resort, Boomer reactions are more positive. But a collection of these “old folks ads” simply makes Boomers put down the magazine, click on another web site or surf to another TV program.

So what does all this have to do with Boomers aging in place? Consider the term “universal design.” Many homes today are being built or retrofitted with the “universal design” model in mind because it makes everything in the home aesthetic and accessible to all people with or without functional limitations. Some elements of universal design include wider doorways and hallways, ramps for entry and exit, walk-in/glide-in showers, sliding shelves in cupboards, lever (instead of knob) handle doorknobs, drawer and cabinet pulls, rocker (instead of toggle) light switches with dimmer switches to add more lighting when needed, better shielding to prevent glare, lower sinks, easy faucets, even stair-lifts or home elevators. None of this screams “old.” It’s just “universal” and as such, the concept makes aging in place at home seem – in the words of Boomer idol Martha Stewart – like “a good thing”.

The pioneering “Greatest Generation” that gave birth to the Baby Boomers, has shown younger generations what it’s like to grow a lot older than their own parents did thanks to dramatic innovations in wellness and health care. Because they lived and learned through the Depression, a majority of members of the Greatest Generation saved and invested money; but for many, their portfolios have been barely enough to see them through an end-of-life a decade later than they thought, let alone leave any inheritance for their Boomer kids. Ten years ago the popular opinion was that Boomers would be blessed by an enormous transfer of wealth. Sadly that vision evaporated with the economic downturn that still grips the U.S.

If Boomers want to stay in their homes as long as possible, they may do well to thank their children for moving back in, even with grandchildren in tow. Inter-generational housing is not just for big, planned village communities. It’s happening on suburban streets in just about every town in every state. Families have been forced to move in with one another, short or long term. Sometimes they are all in the same home, which, let’s face it, can be very uncomfortable. Some families are purchasing and installing little pre-fabricated homes dubbed “granny pods” in their backyards. This type of co-housing arrangement may turn out to be the best training offered for the future of Boomers to afford “aging in place” as long as they can.

With so much change about to come as this enormous generation enters their eighth, ninth and tenth decades on the planet, new options for housing, social engagement and medical care are critical. Expect these possibilities to surface with greater frequency as our society comes to grips with meeting the challenges presented by the aging Boomer cohort.

What about the options of independent and assisted living communities? And what about those dreadful nursing homes that Boomers feel compelled to accept as a care option when their parents and grandparents are no longer able to care for themselves? We’ll tackle these topics in our next post. Meanwhile, we’d like to know what you think about Boomers aging in place, so please join the conversation and add your comments below.

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