Aging Places: How Some Local Communities Are Preparing for a Surging Population of Seniors

“Aging in place” has come to denote the desire of most older Americans to remain living independently in the homes and neighborhoods where they have social ties for as long as they can. Supporting this desire requires much more than merely supplying in-home nursing care.

To hear demographers and journalists talk, the rapidly rising tide of retiring baby boomers is akin to a natural disaster of oceanic proportions: look out for The Age Wave!

It’s true, aging is natural enough. But whether communities experience it as a disaster or not will depend entirely on man-made factors, experts on aging say.

The aging scenario is one that invites hyperbole: The largest generation of Americans with the longest life expectancy ever, will be the first massive age cohort to grow old in suburban settings geared far more toward child-rearing than to retirement.

The number of Americans 65 or older will nearly double between now and 2030, and the share of the population that is 85 and older will increase by 52 percent.

Today, the “oldest” city in America is Scottsdale City, Ariz., with one in five residents 65 or older. By 2030, the entire country will look like today’s oldest city. Those with the largest elder populations, including Florida and nine other states, will have more Medicare-eligible seniors than school-age children in 2030, according to the AARP.

Roughly three in four Americans over 50 today live in stand-alone houses in suburban settings built with the expectation that every adult resident will drive cars for their every need. And every indication is that they will stay there.

“What’s happened is that age-segregated retirement communities are not attractive to a majority today,” said Amy Levner, manager for home and family at AARP. “People are not moving to Florida or Arizona in droves like they used to. They are working longer, they are staying engaged in their local community and they are staying in their homes.” Since 1990, about 90 percent of retirees have stayed put in the same county they had lived in previously, and the majority of them remained in the same homes. “The challenge is that their homes and neighborhoods were geared toward family raising and aren’t structured as well for aging in place.”

“Aging in place” has come to denote the desire of most older Americans to remain living independently in the homes and neighborhoods where they have social ties for as long as they can. Supporting this desire requires much more than merely supplying in-home nursing care and the like, experts say. According to the AARP, “Policies to promote aging in place [also must address] the physical design and accessibility of the home, as well as community features such as the availability of nearby services and amenities, affordable housing and transportation options.”

Of all those needs, providing transportation options could prove especially challenging in the automobile-oriented suburbs where most seniors will age in place. By 2015, more than 15.5 million Americans 65 and older will live in communities where public transportation service is poor or nonexistent, according to data reported in “Aging in Place, Stuck without Options.” Research shows without access to affordable travel options, seniors age 65 and older who no longer drive make 15 percent fewer trips to the doctor, 59 percent fewer trips to shop or eat out and 65 percent fewer trips to visit friends and family, than drivers of the same age. As the cost of owning and fueling a vehicle rises, many older Americans who can still drive nonetheless will be looking for lower-cost options.

The “Aging and Stuck” report ranked metro areas by the percentage of seniors with poor access to public transportation, now and in the coming years. Among large metro areas, metro Atlanta ranked the worst, with fully 90 percent of residents over 65 expected to be living without any option but to drive, or be driven by friends or relatives. To its credit, however, the Atlanta region is responding to such critiques with some ground-breaking steps.

Retrofitting Suburbs

“It’s true that many of our suburban neighborhoods were built without considering the needs of an aging population,” said Cathie Berger, division chief of the Area Agency on Aging in Atlanta, in response to the transportation ranking. “But many of the steps we could take to fix that our streets to be safer for walking — will improve quality of life for the entire community.”

Three years ago, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) — metro Atlanta’s planning agency — launched an initiative called Lifelong Communities that looked at steps local governments could take to support aging in place. After hearing from many older residents and stakeholders about their needs, the ARC focused on three key areas: expanding housing and transportation options, encouraging healthy lifestyles and expanding awareness of and access to services.

In 2009, ARC invited the noted urban design firm, DPZ, to conduct a 10-day charrette, or participatory design workshop, examining challenges and possibilities for older residents in five locations around the metro area. The resulting report gave local governments guidance on how to ensure that newly built homes contain access features, such as a “no-step entrance” and wider doorways and turn-around areas for those in wheelchairs, and how to incentivize new development to be less car dependent and more walkable, with a range of housing types in close proximity to daily needs and public transportation.

One of the case study locations, the unincorporated community of Mableton in Cobb County, took the recommendations to heart, and then some. Mableton was briefly its own city in the early 1900s, getting as far as laying out a small downtown street grid before a flood bankrupted the town, which then surrendered its charter to the county. During the “white-flight” era of the 1960s and 1970s, the area around Mableton exploded with conventional suburban development. As its housing stock and residents have aged, the area is now looking for redevelopment that can both serve an older population and bring new vitality, said Dana Johnson, planning division manager for Cobb County.

“The Lifelong Communities charrette was just the kick start we needed,” Johnson said.

The design workshop had focused on how to turn the last large, undeveloped parcel in the heart of Mableton into the walkable town center that was missing from the area. As it happened, the land belonged to the family of former Gov. Roy Barnes, who liked the idea and agreed to support it.

“Cobb County has been ahead in preparing for the aging population in Atlanta,” said Johnson. “We have had a senior living code in place for some time that accommodates … retirement communities that allow people to start in independent living and transition to assisted living. But we noticed that these required people to move to places that are kind of cut off. We wanted to make the whole community senior friendly, rather than make them move to a separate development that is senior friendly.”

The county hired DPZ to come back in 2010 and conduct a community-wide charrette to get citizen input that ultimately led to a design for the Mableton town center and creation of new zoning and design standards to encourage it to happen. The county “looked at transportation infrastructure to make sure we have sidewalks and they are wide enough,” said Johnson. “We are changing traffic signal timing for older pedestrians. We put some ‘easy living’ standards in place, such as wider doorways and having one no-step entrance. The plan for the Barnes land will create a mixed-use center where people can get services and activities all in one place.”

While the impetus for a new Mableton came from the concern about aging, the plans are intended to be multigenerational. The Cobb school system agreed to locate a new school in the area. But rather than build it in conventional suburban style — on one long, spread-out level surrounded by parking — they built it in the two-story style of traditional, walkable schools. Some of the land that did not become parking will instead become an intergenerational community garden, where older residents will mentor youngsters in cultivating plant life. The county also has devoted funds from a transportation-funding measure to begin creating new street connections that will make the area more walkable.

“The community buy-in is the most critical aspect of all of this,” Johnson said.

“Mableton is one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful responses we’ve seen,” said Scott Ball, who was on the DPZ planning team and is author of a forth-coming book, “Livable Communities for Aging Populations: Urban Design for Longevity.”

Retaining and Serving an Older Population

While aging in place provides one set of challenges in growing metro areas, it provides different ones in rural and Rust Belt communities, Ball said, and some communities are responding in creative ways.

“These communities are losing population, and they are losing the young educated folks,” Ball said. “At the same time, they are seeing people build retirement communities on green fields just outside the town’s urban area. These places need to keep people in town, to keep the lights on and remain viable in attracting younger adults. Older adults can play a significant role in revitalizing these Main Streets.”

In recognition of both the challenge and the potential for these communities, the Indiana State Legislature recently authorized a program called “Communities for a Lifetime,” that will offer planning grants to help a series of communities plan for retaining and supporting their aging populations. Plans are meant to “include determining their local need and walkability to food, medical care, and amenities [as well as] setting safety standards, finding ways to locally promote intergenerational interactions and civic engagement, and maximizing independence for their residents,” according to the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority. Successful communities are expected to be eligible for future grants for age-friendly infrastructure.

“The one thing most small and rural communities have is an outsized share of older residents,” said Zachary Benedict, a planner and architect with the Indiana urban design firm of Morrison Kattman Menze, Inc. “Those communities in Indiana have 90 percent more seniors than the national average, and if the trends continue they’ll have three times that.

Benedict’s firm has been working with some of these towns to help lure senior-friendly housing and amenities to their downtowns, “to turn a ghost town of a Main Street into a vital, walking downtown,” he said. “If you can use the aging population as a catalyst for renewal you can kill two birds with one stone.”

Benedict points to the example of the Mather’s Café Plus operations in the Chicago area. Created by a nonprofit organization, Mather Lifeways, the cafés look like any coffee shop or café, but they are “designed to attract active, older adults (50+) and to keep them coming back for more by providing fun, educational, and wellness programs and activities. And, of course, delicious food.” Forward-looking local governments or nonprofits can partner with local entrepreneurs to open similar enterprises, Benedict said. “Retirees really do have disposable income — even if fixed — and they have time to engage and to participate. You need to take advantage of the asset.”

Arlington County, Va., just outside the District of Columbia, is another community that has tried to get ahead of the “age wave.” In 2006, the county adopted an Elder Readiness Plan that addressed a wide range of issues and initiatives. The once-prototypical suburban city has been working since the 1970s to create more walkable, mixed-use corridors. The Elder Readiness Plan aimed to go even farther. In transportation, the county has begun converting all transit buses to wheelchair accessible, low-floor vehicles; introduced a bus loop that takes seniors to activities several times a week; expanded paratransit service; and offers discount taxi vouchers for times when bus service won’t work.

The county also tried to expand options for seniors to live with family members in garage apartments, outbuildings or attached suites, but because the requirements are “tight” there have been relatively few takers, said Chris Zimmerman, a member of the Arlington County Board since 1996. The plan also nudged into existence a “vertical village” pilot, where residents of a high-rise with a large number of seniors are provided a “concierge” who can help them with various needs and services.

“The idea is that you can have a continuum of care and support within your community, without having to go to a special facility before you absolutely have to,” Zimmerman said.


To help spawn more Arlingtons and Mabletons, the AARP in April announced creation of a Network of Age-Friendly Communities, based on an effort begun by the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO program, according to promotional materials, “helps cities and communities become more supportive of older people by addressing their needs across eight dimensions: the built environment, transport, housing, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic participation and employment, communication, and community support and health services.” Seven states so far have joined the AARP network: Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, as well as the District of Columbia.

Ball noted that the last time there was a national conversation about aging, it was the 1960s, and many older Americans were literally wasting away in poverty and isolation, with limited health care and few services. “We have many more adults suffering from obesity than malnutrition, thanks to Medicare and the 1960s Agency on Aging programs. We’re no longer dealing with this marginalized, starving, un-empowered cohort.” Today’s baby boomers will expect to thrive and participate well into their dotage; all they need is help removing potential impediments, Ball said.

“Local governments need to get beyond the idea that what the aging population needs is just more social services,” he said. “They need to encourage cooperative responses rather than mere provision of services. But this cooperative approach is different from the suburban mode of existence, which is each to his own, taking care of your own house, lawn, et cetera, and chauffeuring the kids where they need to go. … One beautiful thing about dealing with aging populations is that it happens to everybody, so it can unify a community across many demographics.”

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