The following article by Strong Towns member and contributor Sara Joy Proppe was originally published on Humane Pursuits and is reposted here with permission.
A couple of months ago, I was leaving the store about 8:30 at night when I noticed an elderly woman pushing her shopping cart into the vast expanse of empty parking lot. The scene struck me as odd because, it being winter in Minnesota, the sun was well beyond set, the weather was nippy, and she appeared to be going in the direction of nowhere with no identifiable car in her line of sight. I shrugged it off and got in my car to head home. A few hundred yards later, as I was exiting the lot, there was the woman again except now she was waving at me. I slowed down and paused a moment wondering what to do. Did she need my help? Was I about to get myself into a situation with a “crazy” lady? I uttered a quick prayer for wisdom and rolled down my window.
She politely asked if I was going in the direction of Western Avenue, which was along my route home. When I confirmed I was, she asked if I might be willing to drive her home. Though I knew better than to really be concerned that she might harm me, I ran through a quick mental checklist anyway of the ways one might avoid being murdered by a stranger. “Establish a personal connection” was one counsel that came to mind, so I asked her name and inquired how she had been planning to get home.
“My name is Miss Mackenzie,” she answered. She explained she had been planning to take the bus, but it had gotten late, and the bus was so complicated anyway. Then she added, “And, it’s just so much nicer to have somebody to talk to.” I was sold. I made room in my backseat for her groceries and we began our drive home. I learned about her years as a flight attendant, what she studied in college, the places she had lived, the languages she spoke. She was a fountain of words. Arriving at her senior living facility, she thanked me and promised that whether it mattered to me, she would pray for me. The truth is, it mattered so much to me.
This story reflects the isolation felt among many of our senior population as they maneuver the built environment. By designing our cities for cars, and consequently neglecting our sidewalks, we have siloed our elders in several ways. Not only does an inability to drive confine many seniors to their homes, but corresponding busy roads and inhumane streetscapes add to the isolating effect by also limiting walkability.
A recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune highlighted the research of Jessica Finlay, an environmental gerontologist at the University of Minnesota, who spent over a year interviewing numerous seniors living throughout the city. What she found was that small features often made the most difference for livability. For instance, high curbs, bumps, and cracks in sidewalks were cited as physical hazards that kept seniors from venturing out. In contrast, shade trees, benches, and sitwalls were highly valued microfeatures that enabled them to enjoy neighborhood walks and more easily run errands on foot. Additionally, she found that elders who were “enmeshed in their communities,” whether it be through church, volunteering, or intergenerational living rated much higher on her “happiness” scale.
How do we better care for the Miss Mackenzies in our cities? We place benches. We plant shade trees. We maintain our sidewalks. We petition our local zoning codes to allow the construction of Accessory Dwelling Units or “granny flats” that provide intergenerational living opportunities on one housing lot. All of this requires us to notice the small things, to be in the details, and to advocate for those who need a community of caregivers, which actually includes every single one of us because, in truth, Miss Mackenzie gave just as much care to me as I gave to her that January night.