When we exile the aging from our auto-oriented towns, where do they go?

Imagine you lived a long, happy life, bought a house, raised a family, held a steady job, and retired with plenty of money in the bank. But one day, someone knocked on your door and informed you that, unfortunately, it was time to move. No, you hadn’t fallen behind on your bills. Nothing particularly dramatic had happened at all. You just had the misfortune of getting old—and the elderly just can’t live in this neighborhood.

That might sound a little sci-fi. But functionally, it’s not too far off from the reality that millions of Americans face when they reach a stage of physical decline that makes car-dependent living impossible—especially if they happen to live in an auto-oriented place. And the transition is rarely as simple as a knock on the door.

The other day, I read a story about a new assisted living facility near my hometown in Geauga County, Ohio. “The Lantern of Chagrin Valley,” Cleveland.com reports, “is one of three assisted living facilities in Northeast Ohio that use architecture and sensory stimulation as a means of improving the lives of resident patients.” The kicker, though is what kind of architecture and sensory stimulation, specifically, the Lantern is attempting to mimic: the exact kind you encounter every day in the nearby town of Chagrin Falls.

Chagrin Falls, Ohio (Source: Jon Dawson via Flickr.)

Chagrin Falls is the town I tell people I’m from. (Though that’s sort of a half truth, or at least a kind of shorthand—more on that later.) It’s a walkable, human-scaled place that was incorporated in 1845 and built up slowly over the course of generations, and a sure bet for tourists who want to venture outside of neighboring big-city Cleveland for a quiet afternoon getaway. There’s a popcorn and saltwater taffy shop, a great little bookstore, a line of quaint restaurants facing the eponymous waterfall. The Lantern’s architects are open about the fact that they wanted to create a Disneyfied edition of Chagrin within the walls of their facility. They’ve even created replicas of Chagrin Hardware, the post office, a fake diner that’s a clear stand-in for the beloved (and since closed) Dinks, which has been lovingly renamed after one of the facility’s residents—all at miniature scale, just like in Orlando. 

And hey: I don’t blame them. There are worse places to imitate than a town like Chagrin. I tell people I’m from there because it’s truly the heart of the community where I grew up, and I love spending time there whenever I visit my family. When I think about the kind of environment I personally want to grow old in someday, and that I'd love for my parents to grow old in if they asked my advice, I picture a lovely, socially connected, easily navigable neighborhood like that.

Probably the most walkable stretch of Bainbridge. Via Wikimedia commons. 

Probably the most walkable stretch of Bainbridge. Via Wikimedia commons. 

But where I’m actually from—and where my dad and my stepmother still live—is the township of Bainbridge, Ohio.

Our part of Bainbridge shares a postal code with Chagrin, but otherwise, it couldn’t be more different. My family lives in a condominium complex just off a highway exit, nestled between a defunct golf course and a strip mall with a defunct K-Mart that has morphed, over my lifetime, into an outdoor supply store that sells a lot of gigantic guns. In high school, I worked at the McDonalds across 306 and had to sprint across a few lanes of highway offramp traffic to get there until my parents caved and got me a car. My childhood hobbies inside the Bainbridge city limits included: being inside of my house, and driving to other places and being inside again.

So: no, it’s not exactly Norman Rockwell. But my parents are happy there, and the lifestyle works for them. My stepmother made her career working with horses, and this is horse country. My dad plays synthesizer in a band, so he needs a car with a deep trunk to haul a giant amp a couple times a week. They have a couple kayaks they often like to strap to the top of their SUV to tool around on tributaries of the Cuyahoga River. My dad is unlikely to ever be a car-lite bike-nerd weirdo like his daughter.

But when I think about my parents getting older—and please don’t tell my dad I said this because I make fun of him a lot, but no, my dad is not old yet, and he has always been very healthy—I know they may not be able to stay in that condo in Bainbridge forever. It’s just life: bodies and minds tend to decline. Often, at some point, driving just isn’t an option anymore.

There’s something eerie about the idea that my parents—or someday, I—could, in fact, end up living in a miniaturized version of Chagrin Falls, taking walks through the artificial grass in the “park,” stopping by the “hardware store” for craft hour with the other patients. At least, if we don’t happen to live in people-scaled cities, this may be the best we can hope for.

I want to be clear that I think what the folks at the Lantern are doing is lovely; “reminiscence therapy,” or creating a familiar, beautiful environment for Alzheimer’s patients to live in peace, is a beautiful idea, and they are doing beautiful work. But at least when compared with the alternative, there’s something painful about the fact that as we age, we might be, functionally, forced from our homes, and then put into care facilities that mimic a full-scale community that would give us some independence, dignity and connection—all at a price tag of $6000 a month.

The people who actually live in Chagrin Falls and towns like it at least have the option of hiring in-home care, aging in place, and enjoying the comforts of a community that’s truly built for citizens of all ages. I can’t help but feel like the auto-oriented development pattern—a pattern, by the way, that almost none of us personally chose—has stolen that from us, only to sell back a ¾ scale imitation of it to us when we’re old and sick, for more than most of us could ever afford. I can only hope that the Strong Towns approach can bring the real thing back.

(Top photo credit: Laura Thonne on Unsplash)