Growing older shouldn't have to mean relocating from the community and neighborhood you love, but in so many American cities which are oriented around cars instead of people, seniors end up relegated to suburban apartment complexes or become increasingly isolated in homes they can't manage. Simple adjustments to the way we structure our cities and neighborhoods could change that scenario and in turn, make life a whole lot happier, healthier and easier for everyone.
Here are three steps that would make our cities work for people of all ages:
1. Make cities safe and easy to get around without a car.
Getting older in the typical American city or town can be incredibly isolating, as Strong Towns contributor Sara Joy Proppe related in this story about a woman who was just trying to get home from the grocery store.
So many of our communities are downright dangerous for anyone outside a car, especially people who move a little slower or use a walker or wheelchair. Whether it's a lack of sidewalks, the absence of safe crossings at intersections, or inaccessible and unsheltered bus stops, senior citizens can face serious challenges just trying to get to a drug store or church. These hindrances not only make life harder, they may also discourage older adults from getting out of their houses, further increasing this cycle of isolation.
By slowing down cars and taking basic steps to make neighborhoods easier to navigate on foot or in a wheelchair, we can create a welcoming atmosphere for seniors — and make our communities safer for everyone in the process.
2. Create housing options that work for people of all ages and abilities.
Danielle Arigoni, Director of Livable Communities at AARP, writes, "For the last seven decades, the dominant development paradigm has been one primarily focused on meeting the perceived needs of families with children.” She couldn't be more spot-on. The single-family home with multiple floors and bedrooms just doesn't fulfill the needs or fit the price range of many Americans, especially older adults. But surveys show that a majority of seniors want to remain in their neighborhoods as they age.
The solution? Create neighborhoods with greater housing options. These include smaller apartments and more modest houses, mixed within residential neighborhoods. Zoning that allows accessory dwelling units (i.e. small cottages attached to or next to existing single family homes) would also open up opportunities for seniors to live with relatives or friends in an affordable, yet independent manner.
Another way to make housing work for older adults is to build with flexibility from the start. "Universal design" principles encourage making small tweaks to things like the width of doorways or the height of drawers to allow people in wheelchairs or with hearing or vision impairments to easily navigate their homes. These adjustments mean that people of any age or ability can use the same home for decades.
Neighborhoods that blend different types of housing are places where people of all ages can thrive. The biggest step our cities can take to encourage these sorts of developments is to simply relax existing laws that stringently regulate the design and size of homes.
3. Build communities that give people purpose and meaning.
One of the greatest determining factors of longevity and health in old age is a sense of purpose and meaning in one's life, according to research by Blue Zones expert, Dan Buettner. And the way we design our communities can have an enormous impact on this.
Let's compare two scenarios: In one, a senior citizen moves into a senior home when she can no longer drive or safely get around her house. The senior home is a big apartment complex on the edge of town in a very auto-oriented, suburban area. Now, not only has she lost her home, her car and her neighborhood, she's also lost the ability to safely get around. Her book club is too far away now and she can't get to her grandchildrens' home as easily, so she spends less and less time with the people she knows and loves. She begins to feel isolated and disconnected.
In the second scenario, our senior leaves her single-family home and stops driving, but instead of moving into a senior complex on the edge of town, she rents a small apartment that's available down the street. Because her neighborhood is safe to walk in (even for someone who uses a cane like she does) and because the city has ample bus service, she can easily get to her book club, babysit her grandchildren, and even starts volunteering at a local soup kitchen. She is connected to her community and feels a sense of purpose each day.
By building our cities at a walkable, human scale, with different housing options and stores, gathering places and resources nearby, we create a foundation for people from ages 1-100 to live happy, healthy lives now and in the future.