Planning Communities for Aging
August 12, 2010


[Photo Credit: flickr user Troy Holden]

In 2011, America's estimated 78.2 million baby boomers will begin to reach retirement age, officially ushering in the "silver tsunami" - a term used to describe the impending onslaught of retirees into a society that is currently ill-prepared to handle the needs of an aging population.

Most boomers currently live in suburbs, having ridden the wave of suburban flight in the 1950's and 60s. As boomers begin to retire, many people will likely reevaluate where they live, with the understanding that needs will evolve as the years tick away. As boomers retire and age, where will they live?

There are two main theories about what this demographic shift will mean for our built environment, in general, and where people will choose to live, specifically. On the one hand, some planners, demographers, and urban thinkers believe many people will move to cities as part of a larger "back to the city" movement as seniors looking for smaller, more manageable homes with easy access to basic necessities. These new urban residents would join millions of seniors who already live in cities.

Another school of thought is that seniors will remain in suburbs as they age. Surveys show that most (about 90%) older adults wish to age-in-place, an approach to aging in which elders remain in their homes or communities as long as possible during the aging process. Aging-in-place is a popular option for seniors because it allows them to maintain social and physical connections that are vital to health and happiness. Seeing as how so many people already live in suburbs, it is likely, given people's preferences for aging in place, that most people will remain in the suburbs.

Regardless of where seniors will choose to live - in the suburbs or in cities - communities across the county will need to adapt to accommodate the needs of a rapidly growing segment of the population. Adaptation is necessary in order to meet the physical, economic, and social demands of older people. Meeting these needs requires rethinking how we approach many facets of our built environment: from transportation and mobility to social support service provision to affordability. Additionally, creating aging friendly communities requires both minor changes (i.e. increasing crosswalk signals to accommodate slower pedestrians) and major, fundamental interventions (i.e. changing land use policies to allow for denser, walkable neighborhoods not dependent upon the automobile). Although cities have some advantages over suburbs such as high-quality transit systems and walkable street grids, neither cities nor suburbs are fully prepared for the needs and demands of an aging population.

But preparing our communities for the elderly should not be seen as an onerous task or a sacrifice. In reality, planning for older adults is just good planning - something that people of all ages stand to benefit from. Take for example, the issue of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), often called "granny flats". This type of housing would allow homeowners to add a rental unit (usually in the basement, behind a house, or above a garage). This unit would provide added income to supplement older adults on fixed incomes. Additionally, granny flats would provide relatively inexpensive places to live for lower-income residents. The only problem is that ADUs are illegal in most places - cities and suburbs alike. Permitting ADUs is just one example of numerous changes that both cities and suburbs could implement to enhance quality of life residents of all ages.

Surely, the task of retrofitting suburbs and cities is a tall order. However, it is one that must be dealt with - we have the practical and moral charge to make sure we're ready . With the silver tsunami coming, communities across the country must act immediately.

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