A couple enjoys playing with their dog while sitting on a sofa inside their apartment

An estimated 73.1 million Americans — more than one in five — will be 65 or older by 2030, up from 49.2 million in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But much of the U.S. housing stock isn’t designed for older adults who want to age in place. 

Older adults were more likely to report that they or someone they live with had difficulties getting around their home or using essential rooms, according to a report from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. Older renters were more likely to report difficulties than older homeowners, the researchers found.

These factors could create even more demand for “age-friendly” rental units, as the Urban Institute forecasts the number of households headed by renters 65 or older will jump from 7.4 million in 2020 to 12.9 million by 2040 — that’s a 75% increase. 

Households of older renters projected to jump 75%

In 2020: 7.4 million
By 2040: 12.9 million

Experts shared budget-friendly ways to make apartments more accessible and conducive to aging in place. The best part? Many of the strategies can benefit everybody at a property, and making units more resident-friendly can help attract and retain renters of any age. 

Modest changes can have a big impact

Some strategies for making residential buildings more accessible to older adults, like expanding a bathroom to accommodate a mobility device or installing an elevator, can require a bigger investment. But others are relatively easy to implement. 

Suggestions to consider: 

Lighting: Keeping spaces well-lit is key, as older adults experiencing common vision changes tend to need more lighting, says architect Josh Safdie, principal at KMA, a Massachusetts-based firm specializing in universal design and accessibility planning. Look for switches that don’t require grasping or turning small controls, like rocker switches, which provide a larger surface for users to push a light on or off.  

It’s also a good idea to let renters control the level of light by providing multiple lighting sources or dimmer switches, says Brian Pape, co-chair of the American Institute of Architects New York Design for Aging Committee. “If you’re going from a dark space to a very light space, it can be disorienting or difficult to adjust.” 

Hardware: Consider installing hardware that makes it easier to open and close cabinets or operate sinks and showers, like swapping round knobs for lever handles, Pape says. 

In bathrooms, grab bars can be useful, as can faucets and showers that use lever-style controls that are easier to manipulate than those that require twisting, according to the Aging in Place Guide for Building Owners, from the New York City Department for the Aging and the American Institute of Architects New York Design for Aging Committee. Handheld and adjustable shower heads, meanwhile, allow individuals to stand or sit while showering. 

Doors: Entry doors should have push or lever-style hardware or be automated, according to Enterprise Community Partners’ Aging in Place Design Guidelines. Enterprise Community Partners is a national nonprofit that develops and advocates for affordable housing, but its recommendations around aging-in-place design also apply to market-rate buildings, says senior program director Mary Ayala.   

Inside units, barn or pocket doors also can be a good fit as they let residents use the full width of the doorway, but avoid pocket doors that require grasping the door and pulling it out of its pocket. 

Flooring and steps: Stick with even floor surfaces and avoid tripping hazards like loose rugs or thresholds, Pape says. If the unit has a step, ramp or other uneven surface, change the color or tone of the floor to highlight the change in level. 

“If everything is monotone, if you have any kind of visual impairment, it can blend into snowblindness, where everything looks the same,” he says.   

Flexible spaces: When possible, design rooms so renters can adapt them to their needs, which may change over time, without making renovations, says Safdie. 

In a multi-level unit with an upstairs bedroom, consider keeping a flexible first-floor space that can be converted to a bedroom if needed. In the kitchen, owners could install removable floor-level cabinets that can slide out of the way if a renter needs to sit while working at the counter or sink, he says. 

Additional resources: Every building is different. For more ideas about changes that could make it easier for residents to age in place, check out resources like the Aging in Place Guide for Building Owners, created by the New York City Department for the Aging and the American Institute of Architects New York Design for Aging Committee, or Enterprise Green Communities’ Aging in Place Design Guidelines for Independent Living in Multifamily Buildings

“You can easily make changes without giving your unit an ‘institutional’ feel,” Pape says. “Whether it’s furniture or hardware for kitchens or bathrooms, you can find things that would be indistinguishable from other products [not created with universal design in mind],” he says. 

Include renters in the planning process

Everyone’s needs are different, so it’s critical to include renters and experienced building staff in the planning process before making changes, Ayala says. They may have a better feel for what adjustments will have the biggest impact and generate ideas that wouldn’t occur to the property owner. 

At one affordable housing development, residents said they were wary of walking near a building entrance with overgrown planters that turned into tripping hazards — a problem with a budget-friendly fix, Ayala says. 

“When you try to decide what’s best for your community without engaging residents and partners, you’re missing a big opportunity and may not be using your resources in the most impactful way,” she says. 

“When you try to decide what’s best for your community without engaging residents and partners, you’re missing a big opportunity and may not be using your resources in the most impactful way.”
—Mary Ayala

Setting priorities

If your budget for aging-in-place investments is limited, consider the impact potential changes would have, as well as how feasible they are, Ayala says. 

Enterprise developed a tool to help building owners prioritize upgrades. Projects affecting residents’ safety in an emergency, for instance, would be considered more critical than those that are mere conveniences. The organization also has a checklist investors can use to evaluate properties and identify areas that could use improvement. 

Design for all ages

Changes that make properties more accessible don’t just benefit older adults. It’s why they’re often referred to as inclusive or universal design, and ensuring buildings and units are easy to navigate and use can help attract and retain renters. 

Installing automatic or easy-to-open doors, for instance, makes things easier for anyone holding a package or pushing a stroller, and young kids may benefit from navigational cues, Ayala says. 

“We’re all temporarily able-bodied, and in our lifetimes we all probably will be disabled in some way, at least temporarily,” Pape says. “There are needs for these accommodations no matter what your stage of life is.”   

Get more, learn more: Story by J.P. Morgan helps multifamily investors keep up with real estate news, insights and tips from experts.