Baby Boomer women (females currently between ages 51 and 69) take great pride in their Homes: they have equated home with family, worked extra time to pay the mortgage, and spent their discretionary income (if any) on home improvements and décor. Certain retailers personify the suburban home: Williams-Sonoma, Restoration Hardware, and Bed Bath and Beyond. These stores celebrate ‘Home’. But, since 2008, these home-goods stores have not been gaining economic ground. Boomer women may find an analogy: their suburban homes may tether them to an earlier time and thwart them from a prosperous retirement.
The recent book, Aging Well in Suburbia, Gray Homes|Green Cars notes multiple reasons why suburban homes may be no place for old men… the reasons are even more compelling for women.
Women, Age, and Mobility
The overarching reason has to do with mobility. As they age, women tend to reduce the frequency of car trips, and the length of their travel, sooner than men. Perhaps women, more realistically than men, assess the hazard of a car accident and injuring others. Curiously, Baby Boomer women were the first cohort to drive almost as much as men and claim dual-car households (see: McGuckin and Lynott, AARP Public Policy Institute) Yet they are already leading the charge to cut back their driving. In 2009, only 89 percent of women, aged fifty to sixty-four were drivers, compared with 95 percent of men that age (see: Lynott and Figuerido, AARP). Among women over age seventy-five (The Silent Generation) only 61 percent were drivers.
To the extent that women choose to age in the suburbs, this is a disturbing trend. If the ability to drive is compromised, a suburban home could make aging-in-place a lonelier, more isolating experience. Although home delivery services are burgeoning, a package dropped at the doorstep is not a substitute for a vital, active connection to the larger community.
Women, Age, and Home Upkeep
The problems for women who age in suburbia go beyond transportation. In Aging in Suburbia we observe that maintaining a home and doing basic upkeep has been the purview of both genders. But, because they will live longer older women will, going forward, carry both the mortgage and shoulder more home maintenance. More than fifty percent of Baby Boomers are retiring with outstanding mortgages, since they bought or refinanced late-in-life. In addition, their homes, many built nearly fifty years ago, require extensive upkeep, plus cutting the grass, painting, keeping the gutters clear, and so on. Although some women will have resources to “outsource” this work, this can be onerous, even with the best of help. In 2011, nearly one-half of older women, age 75+, lived alone (U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services).
Women, Age, and Reverse Mortgage
There are additional reasons why Baby Boom women and housing may not mix well. A key one is tied to having sufficient resources to age in place. Boomers, both men and women, are entering retirement with financial worries, due to job losses and private pension woes. They may come to discover that their home can be leveraged as a financial instrument, called the reverse mortgage.
The kicker, however, is that the cash payout for a reverse mortgage is linked to the age of the youngest home-owner named on the deed. Women need to be listed when their spouse applies for a reverse mortgage; otherwise, they will not have legal rights to the property if the spouse dies. There has been a reluctance to list a younger spouse, since it reduces the monthly stipend or lump sum payment from the payout. The payout is based on actuarial data, and lenders reflect the fact that women will outlive male spouses.
Transportation, home maintenance, and home equity are three issues that will make aging in place a challenge for older women. These are the tip of the iceberg; yet brand new issues will surface, as the Boomers are the first generation to fully age in far-flung suburbs. Their suburban homes will be an expensive centerpiece. Baby Boom women may question whether their daily affairs should rotate around the upkeep of their home, particularly as the need for multi-bedrooms and mega-spaces fades. When it becomes taxing to drive at night, unsafe to stroll without sidewalks, and maintenance becomes a chore, the essence of home-sweet-home may change. We pose these questions in Aging in Suburbia, Gray Homes|Green Cars. Boomer women, ever resourceful, who have worked so hard to beautify their existing homes, may discover joyfulness in new ones.