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Aging in Place in Suburbia

September 29, 2016 

Dear SBU Social Welfare community,

I am so glad for the positive response with the launch of the Dean’s Corner last month.  We heard from several of you pleased with news about the School. I want to use this month’s message to tell you about what the School is doing on a critical social issue—aging in place in suburbia.  

Not a day goes by that I don’t hear from someone struggling with the care of a mother, father, aunt, uncle, or spouse.  And it is not surprising.  According to CDC, the growth in the number and proportion of older adults is unprecedented in the history of the U.S.  The population of Americans 65+ will double in the country over the next 25 years and by 2060 there will be over 98 million older adults, comprising 25% of the U.S. population.  They can also be expected to live longer.   Almost 20% of the older adults will be 85+, and demographics suggest that 600,000 will be over 100.  This increase is known as “the tsunami of aging.” Older adults will also be increasingly diverse with a decreasing white population and double digit increases in older adults of color including 31% among African Americans, 49% among Native Americans, 109% among Asian, Pacific Islanders, and 51% among Latinos. 

New York State’s population will resemble the rest of the country with 5.3 million older adults by 2030.  More than half a million of them will be 85+, and it will be a very diverse group. Almost all counties in NYS will experience rapid growth of older adults but 12 counties (including New York City, Nassau, and Suffolk) will be home to the largest number and most diverse populations.  Additionally, the older adults in the future will have economic challenges.  Social security replaces only 40% of pre-retirement earnings, only 18% of older adults have pensions, and 60% of workers report that they have less than $25,000 in savings (30% have less than $1000). The “take-aways” for social policy and practice are clear:  there will be more older adults, they will live longer, they will be increasingly diverse, and have fewer resources.  

Evidence suggests that older adults thrive when they remain living independently in their homes and in their neighborhoods where they can participate actively and experience social connections, a sense of community, and enjoy a life of purpose.  This is called “aging in place.” Most people want to age in place from the time of their retirement to the end of their life. But to do so means that supports for aging have to be available and accessible across a continuum from well aging to end of life with services and care based on need.   

There’s been impressive work on aging in place in many cities, and some work on aging in rural areas, but not a lot of attention to how to help people age in place in suburbia.  Although the fundamentals are consistent regardless of geography, aging in place requires somewhat different responses in the suburbs. In suburban contexts, like Long Island, the absence of public transportation, and the expense and condition of single unit housing can lead to social isolation.  Here on Long Island, 85% of older adults in Nassau and 79% in Suffolk own their homes.  

As the iconic American suburb, Long Island is perfectly situated to lead on this issue.  And this important and national issue offers a great opportunity for Stony Brook University, with its many fine schools and departments, with its Health Sciences, with researchers from multiple relevant disciplines, with its high caliber and enthusiastic students, and with the School of Social Welfare, we can be a national leader in developing the social, health, and technological solutions that lead to effective aging in a suburban context.  

With this in mind, the School of Social Welfare will lead a SBU effort to tackle the issue of Aging in Place in Suburbia beginning with a Working Summit on October 6th and 7th.  The Summit is co-sponsored with Stony Brook University by the New York State Office on Aging, AARP, Nassau and Suffolk Counties Office on Aging, the National Aging in Place Council, and the Long Island Health and Welfare Council. The purpose of the Summit is to identify national, statewide, and local innovations in housing, transportation, personal finance, social engagement, and wellness, services, and care-giving that can be implemented in a pilot program on Long Island.  Our long term goal is to establish a social incubator on aging in place in suburbia that convenes researchers in a variety of disciplines (social welfare, neurobiology, engineering, business, architecture, medicine, nursing, public health, etc.);  students; and community and governmental partners.  The incubator will design technological and social solutions for the future—creating the best policy ideas, and educating the workforce to ensure successful aging in place on Long Island and for other suburban communities.  

I hope you are as excited about the potential for growing social work in this important area.  If this is something that interests you, please let us know.  In the meantime, I will keep you updated on our progress.  And check our website after October 7th for results of the Summit.

My best wishes for a happy fall.  

Jacqueline B. Mondros, DSW
Dean and Assistant Vice President for Social Determinants of Health