Mark Miller

I remember the suburbs of the 1950s and 1960s as a kid's paradise. Every block was filled by young families with children, and the neighborhood was our playground.

The kids from that era are still in the suburbs -- but now we're in our 50s and 60s. And that's creating major challenges -- and opportunities -- for communities.

The number of U.S. households headed by someone over age 65 will jump 35 percent in the coming decade as baby boomers age, according to "The State of the Nation's Housing," a report issued recently by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University (JCHS).

"Boomers are the most suburban generation in the nation's history," says Dan McCue, senior research analyst at the JCHS. "Suburban communities will need to shift to providing more amenities for a senior population, rather than for a family population. It's going to be a major transition for the suburbs -- especially as more of those household heads turn 75 or 85."

Overall, the JCHS report doesn't offer much hopeful housing news: Millions of owners remain underwater on their mortgages; existing home sales remain depressed and new home sales remain near record lows. High vacancy rates and foreclosures continue to place downward pressure on prices. Nothing is likely to change, JCHS reports, until demand turns upward with a broader economic and jobs recovery.

"While the sharp declines in both home prices and interest rates have left homes in many places more affordable than they have been in decades, stubbornly high unemployment and tightened lending standards have limited the ability of many first-time buyers to capitalize on the situation," said Eric S. Belsky, managing director of JCHS. "The state of the nation's housing," he adds, "is sobering."

Aging homeowners will add some measure of needed ballast and stability to the housing market. They tend to have less debt and more equity built up in their homes, and they move less frequently. But the graying trend also points to some big opportunities and challenges for the housing industry, and for communities serving an increasingly gray population.

Contrary to stereotypes of seniors moving to golf communities or other types of senior living communities, most older Americans aspire to age in place. That means staying in the homes they already own, or downsizing to housing near friends and family -- and most will be doing so in the suburbs.

But another recent report found that most communities aren't making much progress preparing for a graying population. The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (NAAAA) surveyed a representative sampling of all U.S. cities and towns with populations over 2,500; the report concludes that financial challenges stemming from the recession are preventing many from making progress in key areas such as public transportation and development of age-appropriate housing.

Most suburbs are designed around automobile transportation; as older adults stop driving, they're at risk of being isolated from their communities. The report points to the need for more programs that provide transportation to healthcare services, grocery stores and cultural events. There's also a need for more walking options -- sidewalk systems linking residential areas and essential services.

The needed changes don't always require big budgets, according to Sandy Markwood, CEO of the NAAAA. "We can make roads safer for older drivers with better line markings and signage. And, we need better correlation of land use policies with public transportation." Markwood also points to innovative initiatives, such as a volunteer driver program developed by the National Center on Senior Transportation.

Aging in place also will create significant opportunities for home remodelers, architects and contractors able to help homeowners adapt their dwellings through universal design, which addresses issues such as countertop height and electrical sockets; usability of faucets, door levers, switches, and appliances; wide no-elevation entrances; comfortable height toilets; and improved lighting.

In fact, adapting our communities for an older population could be a major opportunity for economic stimulus and growth -- if we can just figure out how to fund all the necessary changes.