Affordable housing is tough enough to find when you're young and healthy. But for older Americans, it's even harder. Retirement homes are nice, but not everyone can afford it. They're often built in areas far from urban centers where most senior services are located. In the final story of our aging boom series, KUOW's Ruby de Luna profiles the ID Village Square in Seattle's International District. The housing and mixed service development is an example of a senior-friendly community in an urban setting.
(Open with exercise ambiance)
Most seniors at Legacy House start the day with a morning exercise. After an hour of calisthenics, some of them will go to a smaller room for a meditation class. 85-year old Li Hua-hwei is one of the newer residents here. She moved to Seattle from Sichuan, China. For years she lived with her daughter and her family on the Eastside. During that time she helped care for her grandchildren. Mrs. Li spoke through a translator. She says when her grandkids reached school age and didn't need supervision she started helping out at her daughter's restaurant…
LI (through translator): “I pretty much did everything from cutting vegetables, cleaning up. I do everything because it's my daughter's restaurant, so I try to take care of everything as much as I can.”
Working at the restaurant also meant long hours. She was getting tired. But if she stopped working, it meant staying home alone because her family was busy at the restaurant…
LI: “My children are worried for me being home alone, and I don't feel used to it… I don't feel comfortable with it.”
Early last year Mrs. Li moved to Legacy House. She doesn't need around the clock care, but she can call on a staff member when she needs help. She also likes that the staff speaks Chinese and other Asian languages. Even the food is cultural specific. Mrs. Li says she has the best of both worlds: she has her own life at Legacy House, and there are public buses that allow her to visit and stay connected with her family…
LI: “At the beginning I missed them a lot, and later I realized that I'm getting old. I should let my children go because they have their own life, they have their work they need to do…I should find my own life, especially at Legacy House, people are taking care of me very well…. I feel very happy now.”
There are 75 elders like Mrs. Li who live in Legacy House. Most of them are on a fixed income, usually less than $6,000 a year. Legacy house is part of ID Village Square. It's the brain child of Bob Santos, a community activist who grew up in the neighborhood. In the mid ‘70s he and other concerned advocates banded together to fight off developers. These developers wanted to demolish old hotels that were home to many elderly Asian immigrants. Santos wanted to build a one-stop place that provided housing and support services for seniors, in their native language…
SANTOS: “These folks came from villages, from China, Japan and the Philippines, so the old idea of collecting together made sense.”
The ID Village Square is close to a health clinic, a community center, and social service agencies. Also, there's a daycare center next door and apartment buildings nearby for working families. The idea wasn't just to create an old people's home. Santos says they envisioned a multigenerational community. They wanted a neighborhood where residents live and work, a place where everyone can come together…
SANTOS: “You want people to appreciate the history of what old people have to offer, and if you have an intergenerational facility here like we have down the hall, you want the old folks at some point to share their experiences with younger people, even little kids, if that can happen. And that's how the concept was here when we started it out.”
More and more seniors are choosing to live in cities. You can see that shift in the growing number of condos and apartment buildings in Seattle that cater to residents 55 and older.
HINSHAW: “I think the last generation was satisfied with being warehoused somewhere. I think this generation and upcoming will not be.
Mark Hinshaw is director of urban design for LMN Architects. His practice focuses on city planning. He says seniors are choosing to live in urban centers to be closer to the activities and services that cities have to offer…
HINSHAW: “There's just this notion that we're sociable, we want to be around real people, all kinds of people, not just people like ourselves. We want to be part of a real neighborhood, we want lots of choices, we don't want to depend on a private shuttle bus to take us everywhere.”
One thing that's standing in the way of creating a senior-friendly neighborhood is lack of housing. Specifically, affordable housing for older adults. In fact, a recent report by the King County Aging and Disability Services calls it a “quiet crisis.” It projects that the number of seniors living in poverty will double by the year 2025. Already, more than 6,700 low income seniors are waiting for housing assistance.
Paula “Tommy” Tomlinson is director of senior services for the agency that operates Legacy House. She says there are two trends driving the demand. Baby boomers are hitting retirement age. And their parents are living longer, too…
TOMLINSON: “They've sold their house and moved into a community and they've spent down all their savings and they're still living. And I've had residents say to me, I didn't plan to live to be 90 so I didn't plan to fund my health care, my meals, and everything else. And I'm now 92 and out of money.”
Even with state assistance there's no guarantee that one could find housing. Tomlinson says many private homes are turning away new residents on state assistance because the reimbursements are low. Tomlinson says anyone who's approaching retirement has to face a new reality. Pension funds aren't what they used to be, our social safety net is fraying, and public funds for long term care is limited. Basically, we're on our own.
TOMLINSON: “Prepare. Guys, buy long term care insurance and prepare.
In the meantime, regional planners are looking for ways to meet the challenges facing older adults. Some ideas being considered include senior financial literacy training, and workshops for retrofitting houses to make it easier for older residents to stay in their homes. There are policy discussions, too, on increasing funds to expand the supply of affordable housing.
City planner Mark Hinshaw says there's a silver lining in the current recession. He says it's going to force housing prices to come down, which could lead to more housing options...
HINSHAW: “Everybody's going to be re-establishing a new, lower base of housing costs. And that will just happen when the market recovers. It won't be back to business as usual where everybody's building luxury housing because we've showed that everybody can't afford luxury housing; you just can't make it work.”
Hinshaw says making communities senior-friendly is not just good for older people; it's good for everyone. After all, we will all eventually reach that stage in life.
I'm Ruby de Luna, KUOW news.