Danielle Arigoni is Director of Livable Communities at AARP and shares today's guest article about the future of an aging America.


American communities are on the precipice of enormous change, but it isn’t a change that should catch anyone by surprise.  We are all, of course, aging.   Right now, approximately 45 million Americans are 65 or older.  By 2030, that number will reach 73 million Americans.  At that point, fully one in five Americans will be older than 65.  The growth is particularly pronounced in some states such as Maine, Florida, Montana and New Mexico where 25 percent or more of the population in 2030 will be over 65.

But the real moment of change will take place just a few years later: by 2035, we will — for the first time in US history — be a country comprised more of older adults than of children.  The US Census projects that just 17 years from now, there will be 78.0 million people 65 years and older compared to 76.4 million under the age of 18. 

For the last seven decades, the dominant development paradigm has been one primarily focused on meeting the perceived needs of families with children.

Knowing that this turning point is on the horizon is, in many ways, an opportunity.  It can provide the catalyst we need to revisit some common practices in land development that have, over time, generated more problems than promise, particularly for older adults.  For the last seven decades, the dominant development paradigm has been one primarily focused on meeting the perceived needs of families with children.  That manifested in a regulatory context (through zoning and building codes) that led the market to build a predominance of single-family detached units, nested within auto-centric transportation networks, and largely separated from commercial and industrial uses. 

A number of problematic environmental consequences have emerged as a result, such as rapid land conversion, increased demands for energy and water, and growing carbon emissions.  But social and economic consequences have emerged, too: longer and more costly commutes, increased social isolation, higher infrastructure costs, greater dependency on automobiles for mobility and independence, and more financial vulnerability associated with housing costs. 

All of these costs are even more acute for older Americans.  For example, for older adults, the equity in their homes may be their single largest source of savings — which can either be enormously comforting, or terrifyingly volatile, depending on where you live.  And for those who aren’t homeowners, rents now represent a greater burden than ever before: a recent Forbes article revealed that fully 50% of renters 65 and older now pay more than 30% of their income for housing, and 30% are severely burden, paying more than 50% of their income on housing.

And yet the conundrum we face is that the vast majority of older adults want to remain in their home as they age: roughly 90% of adults 65 and older want to ‘age in place’ in their homes and in their communities.  Most people want to remain in the homes and communities where they have lived their adult lives because they like their community. They like and know their doctors, and their doctors know them.  They like to see their friends.   They want to be close to kids and grandkids.  And those connections are not just nice to have; they actually contribute to the health and well-being of older adults.  

Social isolation has been identified as one of the social determinants of health, posing the same risk to one’s health as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.  To the degree that we have created places that inhibit, discourage or outright prevent older adults from interacting with others as they age — due to loss of mobility or home design — we contribute to the pandemic of social isolation rather than solving for it.

Roughly 90% of adults 65 and older want to ‘age in place’ in their homes and in their communities.

AARP is invested in creating more livable communities because we know that in order to support people to live their best lives, to live independently, and to age in place, we must create communities that respond to the needs of older adults. 

The great news is that many of the characteristics that we know older adults seek are the same ones that attract younger adults, and that make communities more economically vibrant and successful.  Both Baby Boomers and Millennials alike share an affinity for places that offer a shorter commute, proximity to shops and services, a mix of homes, a mix of incomes, and robust public transit options.

In particular AARP is interested in building awareness of and support for community-led efforts in the following ways:

  • AARP helps communities examine their housing, transportation and access needs through an age-friendly lens.  More than 230 communities – and two states – are now enrolled in the AARP Network of Age Friendly Communities.  Through this five-year planning and implementation process, real action is taken in communities across eight “domains of age-friendly”.
  • AARP works to support communities diversify their housing stock.  We share information and provide technical support to cities, towns, and states that seek to increase the use of accessory dwelling units and other means to increase the range of housing choices.  ADUs not only provide an option for older adults to downsize in their communities, but they can also generate much-needed income to offset housing costs, or proximate housing for caregivers or family.
  • AARP works to educate communities and residents on how to determine the livability of their neighborhood.  Through the Livability Index, AARP provides a data-driven score that reveals how livable an area is, across more than 60 indicators related to housing, transportation, health and environment.  The score is a great conversation starter on how and where a community can start to take action to become more age-friendly and more livable.
  • AARP invests in communities to strengthen the quality of place and encourage citizen engagement.  Through our Community Challenge quick-action grants, and our partnership with Team Better Block to do tactical urbanism demonstrations across the country, AARP is investing real resources in making places more intergenerational, more vibrant, and more engaging for all.

We have seen the real difference that these and other strategies can make in communities.  In Macon-Bibb, Georgia, one of the pioneers in the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities, the city is undertaking an ambitious project to convert the Second Street corridor into a new downtown gateway to revitalize the community’s aging center. 

In Fort Worth, Texas, we’ve seen them use a temporary roundabout provided through a Team Better Block demonstration to provide the value of traffic calming, and ultimately install a permanent roundabout to increase pedestrian safety.  And in Eugene, Oregon, we’ve seen the town invest in modifications to make ‘tiny homes’ accessible for mobility-impaired older adults as part of a new, affordable urban village.  [For more great examples and inspiration, check out our Where We Live series, and sign up for our weekly eNewsletter here.]

The great news is that we are not alone.  So many of our partners in the health, mobility, housing, economic development, and public space professions see the value proposition in these strategies — and so many of our members seek these characteristics in their communities.  As we work together to ready ourselves and our communities for 2035, I’m confident that we can build great places for all people of all ages that will help us usher in our new reality with comfort and ease.

(Top photo source: barnimages.com)



About the Author

Danielle Arigoni is Director of Livable Communities at AARP, where she works to support AARP’s 53 state offices, and nearly 250 localities in AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities, to create great places for all people of all ages.  Danielle is an urban planner by education, and has nearly 20 years of professional experience contributing to more sustainable and resilient federal, state and local policy, including prior leadership positions at USEPA and HUD.