Aged woman running to friends to say hello
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Montclair Local is excited to bring you Modern Aging, a column devoted to exploring the longevity revolution nationally and its impact locally here in Montclair.

Have you ever thought about the expression: A man’s home is his castle and the assumptions this metaphor makes about our relationship to our homes. Let’s unpack these assumptions.

This expression is a throwback to an era when women were unlikely to have their names on the deed, …or checkbook,…or credit card.  Not true anymore, and thank goodness!  And, the sad truth is that statistically women outlive men, so if we are talking about modern aging, we must eliminate the gender preference.  Dispensing with the sexist version, let’s substitute A person’s home is his/her/their castle.  

Photo by Andy Newton on Unsplash
Photo by Andy Newton on Unsplash

Why would anyone want to live in a castle?  It is damp, dark and riddled with winding steps. Certainly not suited to arthritic joints or emerging cataracts.  In point of fact, castles were consciously built to protect the occupants from the neighbors. The castle’s moat sends a clear message of approach with care on penalty of harm with menacing armaments tucked into the parapets reinforcing that message.  Certainly, this is not the message that modern elders, who seek the conviviality of neighbors, and bask in the voices of children, respond to positively.

So how did the castle come to represent the epitome of home? Ask yourself what other association comes with castle?  Yes, it is wealth!!

Over the course of seven centuries (assisted by persuasive real estate brokers, bankers, and the development of suburbia), we have come to regard the single-family home as the single most important asset we will ever have. The vast majority of Americans are either mortgaging their future for this asset, or trying to figure out how to keep this valuable asset from deteriorating until those magic years of retirement arrive. After all, the primary point of buying a home is as an investment; dwelling is secondary – right?

No wonder choosing the location of that castle consumes many first-time homeowners. First-ring suburbs like Montclair are always a good investment strategy. Proximity to the Metropolis, existence of mass transit infrastructure, and good schools are primary criteria for investment potential. And, by the way, the scarcity of housing market buying choices is guaranteed to drive housing prices up over time. First-ring suburbs are typically short on undeveloped land parcels so new single-family home development is rare. Current home values in Montclair, for example, are trending upward at the rate of 7.45 percent per year. Work backwards for those homeowners aged 55 and older, and factoring in market fluctuations over 30 years, the typical modern elder owns a first-ring suburban New Jersey home worth nearly a million dollars!  But ask yourself, what use is that million-dollar windfall if the only affordable alternative for living on fixed income is not in your own backyard.  Moving away for financial security will also introduce new insecurities, e.g. negotiating unfamiliar streets, finding new friends, finding a doctor.

Just listing a home value on a balance sheet does not address the necessities for aging in place. Better to ask what services and resources does the modern elder need from his/her/their community to make living in that castle a viable choice? As we age, do we need: the baronial staircase to enter our castle? … the moat-like front lawn that needs to be mowed on a weekly basis? … the cluttered attic to store old family artifacts?  To be frank, many choose to age in place because holding onto ties – good neighbors, familiar streets,  favorite merchants, our physicians – has a demonstrably positive impact on our health as we grow older.   

Smart growth at the municipal level means casting a sober eye on community demographics. In our first-ring towns there are more modern elders than children in the public schools.  Maybe it is time for these suburbs to rethink municipal priorities, especially with respect to housing. Maybe it is time for the State to implement fiscal policies that ensure financial security to older homeowners instead of forcing municipalities to assess ever-escalating property taxes. Maybe it is time for municipalities to rethink castle-protective zoning that reflect the demographics of the 1950s, an earlier time when planning for the nuclear family was the mainstay of growth. Failure to do so now will cause more modern elders to abandon the communities they have lived in for 30+ years and, consequentially, take with them their buying power, their volunteerism, their collective wisdom. [The currently coined grandparent economy is estimated to be over $8 billion nationwide. And modern elders tend to shop locally.)

Here is a check list for smart municipal growth for the modern elder – AARP’s  8 Domains of Livability. Does your community provide these opportunities for you to age in place?

  1. Housing
  2. Outdoor Spaces and Buildings
  3. Transportation
  4. Social Participation
  5. Respect and Social Inclusion
  6. Work and Civic Engagement
  7. Communication and Information
  8. Community and Health Services

So, even if you reside in a home valued at a million dollars –  and a property tax burden commensurate with that assessment –  you will need to check all listed domains of livability to assess the viability of your housing choice as you age. Savvy municipalities will be thinking now of how they can respond to the eight domains and be certified as age-friendly by AARP. If your community fails to respond, you may need to trade in your castle for something more manageable – for accommodations as well as finances. Too many New Jerseyans have already reached that conclusion and moved to homes in states with lower property taxes and where real estate developers have pegged construction to the needs of our growing demographic.

There is one housing alternative on the horizon for helping modern elders age safely and economically within the local communities they love and thereby stemming the flight to other pastures.  If you are a single-family homeowner, you may want to consider adding an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) to your property.  Three municipalities in NJ have already passed local ordinances allowing homeowners to construct ADUs and collect rent on these properties– Princeton, Maplewood, and Montclair.  There is actually pending ADU legislation at the State level in NJ.  Why an ADU?  Firstly, if you can legally collect rent on the ADU, you can offset some of your property tax burden.  If you can move into the ADU yourself and rent the castle, you can increase the rental income. If you need help with clearing snow or moving garbage to the curb, your tenant could be recruited to help you. ADUs can also provide independent housing alternatives for adult children, aging relatives, or caregivers.

Because educating the citizens of our State about ADUs is important, AARP NJ and The Partners for Health Foundation recently awarded grants to Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place (mGAP) to organize an ADU design competition among current architectural students. Prize-winning ADUs  designs will be sited for a typical NJ single-family plot.  At the end of the competition, mGAP will codify the winning designs into an ADU Design Booklet.  (Interested architectural students can obtain more details about the competition on the mGAP website.)  Consider trading in your castle for a barrier-free, modern ADU cottage with state-of-the-art kitchen and bath amenities and still remain in the community you love. Then maybe you can brag that a person’s home is an ADU, but some probably will miss the moat.

Ann Lippel is president of Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place.