By Kathy Danforth / Published May 2018
It is not just the roofs and roads that suffer the effects of time—at some point, residents may find that the years are bringing more challenges than growth. In a community association, the effects are more than just personal; the association that once had an average age of 60 may now be nearing a mean of 75, and needs have changed. Aging is not exactly new, but association living is relatively recent and introduces new aspects. Robert G. Smith with FirstService Residential explains, “Homeowners associations and condominiums were not set up to be assisted living, but we’re finding many folks are staying home as they age.” Fixed income, physical and mental decline, and use of today’s technology can present issues for folks bound together in an association.
The rapid technological advances of recent years have not been adopted wholeheartedly by many older residents. Lack of interest, poor eyesight, the expense, and other factors may contribute to elderly residents choosing not to use electronic or digital communication. Mean-while, Smith points out, “The management industry is moving to more technological products: more use of email and texting, e-voting, and sophisticated websites. It’s a challenge to communicate with board members who don’t have a smartphone or don’t have or use a computer.”
Smith notes, “We have found that many of our older owners may not have a laptop or computer, but they do have a cell phone. We have designed our community platform for phone messages, so a push message is sent across the front of the phone instead of email and texts. We can set boundaries, so we can target homeowners to alert them that assessments are due on the 5th, the pool is closed Saturday, etc. We still use newsletters and postings, as well as cable channels in larger communities. Being able to communicate is huge, so we are finding ways to do it.”
Linda Roman with Vesta Property Services agrees that communication is essential. “Working with 55+ communities, the need for communication is key. With this age demographic, many do not utilize email. Therefore, holding an open session for a couple of hours once a week has made a big difference. This will also bring you [management] closer to the board members. Of course, the elderly face many other challenges, and because many don’t have visiting families, the person-to-person contact is so appreciated—not to mention the knowledge that can be gained from seniors!”
Diane Braswell with Leland Management observes, “One of the challenges with the elderly that we see is with changing technologies. Many communities are moving toward having community websites provide information on the association, and it is becoming increasingly common for residents to be referred online to make payments. While technology can be puzzling to any age group, some of the more senior residents in our communities are not as comfortable with new or changing technology and find it difficult to fully participate in the association’s digital presence.
“To improve this situation,” explains Braswell, “we have committed more resources toward these residents, believing the personal approach is beneficial to alleviate frustration. In communities with on-site personnel, we train them on how to assist with registration and other website issues so that the residents have someone they can work with face to face. We also will come to the community and conduct training sessions on technology topics. This helps mitigate the stresses that often come with changes in technology that can be frustrating for even the savviest user.”
However, lest one be misled into thinking that all seniors are technology-averse, there can also be challenges with seniors (and others) who have become immersed in the ocean of information available. Rebecca Cioci with Vesta Property Services shares, “This can create a whole array of other issues. They have more time to research issues but may not always be looking at acceptable sources for their information.”
Fixed incomes and the view that they have a limited time left in the association can influence senior residents’ approach to finances. “We see the ‘green banana’ effect—‘I won’t be here long enough to see the roads improved,’” says Smith. “A portion of the residents don’t want to raise dues or increase reserves because they don’t think they’ll be there at the time of the replacement. If there is a large population of older people, they can waive reserves, which is their legal right to do. As a management company we don’t recommend that, so we have to be more involved to keep up with rising challenges. It doesn’t necessarily mean the property will deteriorate, but they have chosen a different way to handle expenses—by special assessment or getting a loan. However, going that route is also a burden for those on a fixed income.”
Smith notes, “Whether it results from being on a fixed income or from loss of physical ability, we see elderly residents whose homes start to show signs of deterioration. When you see home maintenance slide, it may be an indication that there is an issue. This brings you to one of the first goals in any community: to have an accurate roster of emergency contacts to call in the event that something may be going on that needs attention.” While the issue may be primarily financial in dealing with a fixed income, Smith notes, “The unfortunate reality is that the association still has to run properly.”
Possibly the most complex issue facing communities is the health challenges residents face as they reach advanced age. Cioci relates, “In the past, many individuals age 65 and older were moved into retirement homes, but those times have swayed to where more and more want to stay ‘in home.’ This presents a new challenge for many HOAs. As the population ages, there comes a greater risk of illness, mental decline, loss of coordination and eyesight, and hampering of many skills that were once excellent.”
“Aging in place is going to be a phenomenon affecting us for the next decade,” states Smith. “Accommodations may need to be made, including elevators, inclined walkways, ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) walkways, and adequate numbers of handicap parking spaces. When 55+ communities were built, they may have been thinking of that. However, we find that it is not unusual for a community that began as a family community to now have 40–50 percent of the residents over 55. The clubhouse may not have been designed for a large number of residents in their later years, and we may need to evaluate the services, amenities, and pathways through the community to accommodate that lifestyle.
“We have seen residents vote for physical site redesign in some cases,” recalls Smith. “You have to get an attorney involved to understand the federal, state, and local ordinances and how the documents apply. The overall flavor of documents for common areas is that any substantial change has to be to the benefit of all. Under construction laws, if you remodel a clubhouse, it is held to current ADA standards regarding bathrooms, ramps, doorways, handicap accessibility, etc.”
Doug Weinstein with AKAM On-Site shares, “As an association’s population ages, certain physical aspects of the property need to evolve to meet their changing needs. This is particularly evident in some of South Florida’s older high-rise structures.
“This frequently manifests itself in access to common areas and amenities,” Weinstein notes. “These older properties were for the most part built before ADA requirements entered the playing field. Today, when updating these common areas and amenities, associations need to ensure that all current code/ADA requirements are met. Furthermore, it is important to address means of access for seniors as well as residents with limited mobility, so all can enjoy these spaces. Items to be updated include not only ramps, strategically placed grab rails, wider entrances, accessible restroom configurations, and pool lifts, but also enhanced access controls and two-way communications with easily reachable panic buttons to be used in case of a fall and/or sudden onset medical emergency.”
“We’re seeing communities creating resources and adding services to assist seniors,” comments Smith. “Lifestyle programs may incorporate wellness checkups, fitness classes, and a socialization program with card games, shows, reading groups, and interaction. Associations may bring in a shuttle service to take residents to the grocery, bank, movies, restaurants, etc. Obviously there’s a cost, but this works well in large communities with a significant elderly population.Though the largest component is usually organized and maintained by the association, I’ve also seen volunteers assist older residents,” Smith observes. “Ad hoc groups have organized themselves to provide services similar to Meals on Wheels, shuttles, or social programs. I’ve seen that especially when most of the residents are older than 70 or 75.”
Cioci suggests areas the community may need to consider. Is an elevator needed or legally required? How accessible are amenities? Can the owners safely traverse the association on foot or by car? Is the service pet rule serving to legally weed out non-service pets, if applicable? Are sound-alerted crossing areas needed or required?
Making the community as safe as possible is in everyone’s best interest. “We see a lot of trips and falls in age-restricted communities, often in the bathroom or on sidewalks,” says Smith. “Communities are incurring additional expenses in those defense cases. To deal with that, we are looking at risk management. Do we have non-slip pads in bathrooms? What are we doing to accommodate the aging process?
“On occasion we’ve had residents who are unsafe,” shares Smith, “and that is complicated legally. We can’t tell them they can’t drive, but there may be legal ramifications of them driving in the community as a result of their age or ability to drive. That has a safety and legal effect on the association as well.”
On the other hand, elderly residents can be vulnerable to physical and financial abuse. The National Council on Aging (NCOA) reports, “Financial scams targeting seniors have become so prevalent that they’re now considered ‘the crime of the 21st century.’ Why? Because seniors are thought to have a significant amount of money sitting in their accounts.” Particularly unfortunate is that the NCOA also notes, “Over 90 percent of all reported elder abuse is committed by an older person’s own family members, most often their adult children, followed by grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and others.” Physical abuse can be hard to recognize, as concerning signs could also result from dementia or frailty, but managers should be alert to the possibility.
Dementia is behind many changes and can also affect the community. Cioci shares, “Often in interacting with older board members and community citizens, you will start to see forgetfulness or plain outright combativeness. This is not uncommon in aging populations. Some battles or issues that arise would be best referred to mediation with counseling available, as going through a court battle is often a waste of valuable resources.”
Smith notes, “There are safety and legal issues, but there is also an operational component. The community may be dealing with board members who are aging significantly and are disoriented with the onset of dementia. There are penalties for not acting in accord with the documents and local and state laws and ordinances. It is a difficult and delicate situation, not only for the management company but also for fellow directors and the community.”
For this, again, Smith advises, “You have to seek legal advice. Make sure you have an emergency contact—folks that you can reach out to for assistance with the individual’s deteriorating health issues. However, we’ve had cases where you call the younger contact relative, and they don’t react or act on the warning signs we’ve given. That makes it very difficult. You have zero legal remedy other than a recall.”
“There are not concrete answers,” concludes Smith. “There are definitely challenges for the elderly, and on the flip side, there are challenges for the association to make accommodations. One key is to start thinking and talking as a community about the issues with aging in place in order to be prepared for coming years. If you don’t start thinking and talking about it, you won’t be prepared.”
Robert G. Smith is with FirstService Residential. For more information, visit www.fsresidential.com.
Linda Roman and Rebecca Cioci are with Vesta Property Services. For more information, visit www.VestaPropertyServices.com.
Diane Braswell is with Leland Management. For more information, visit www.LelandManagement.com.
Doug Weinstein is with AKAM On-Site Inc. For more information, visit www.akam.com.