Suburbs were once the picture of youth: new families realizing the promise of home ownership on leafy and safe streets, far from the hubbub of the city. Driveways, lawns, commerce-free neighborhoods full of young folk – this was suburbia, and if you’ve spent your life in a big city without giving the ‘burbs much thought, you might imagine it hasn’t changed.
In fact, the majority of American suburbs have undergone a radical demographic shift. They are poorer, more ethnically diverse and skewing substantially older than they were 60 years ago. Forty percent of the current suburban population is 45 years and older and, since the year 2000, that group has grown 18 times faster than those under 45. Today, 35 million people ages 65 and up live in suburbia, while younger adults flock to the cities.
The ‘burbs are going gray.
Not the Best Place to Grow Old
Precisely those elements that make suburbs great for young families are making them difficult spots for older people to age-in-place. “If we don’t do anything about the current suburban situation, the result will be economically ruinous, and people who could have taken care of themselves will be unnecessarily incapacitated,” says Andres Duany, co-founder of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, an international planning and architectural firm based in Miami.
- Mobility A major issue with growing old in a traditional suburb – one with low density, little public transit and spread-out residential and commercial uses – is mobility. We assume that the bulk of us will be surrendering our driver’s license, whether voluntarily or at the urging of our families, should we live long enough. At that point, simple things like getting groceries and getting to doctor’s appointments will become extraordinarily difficult. “The single-use zoning that every community fought for means people have to drive everywhere. It becomes a huge obstacle to aging in place,” says Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor of architecture and urban design at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. “The suburbs are built for young people, and if you can’t drive, you become isolated.”
- Architecture Traditional suburban homes themselves can present problems for senior residents. Designed for young families, many have stairs to bedrooms and full bathrooms on the upper floors; those stairs get harder to climb as we age.
- Isolation The privacy of these low-density homes means older folks who fall or even pass away in their homes can go days, even weeks, without being found.
Pam Krawczyk, director of the Amherst Center for Senior Services outside Buffalo, NY, says Amherst seniors have stayed in their homes longer than they should have. “They’re stranded in cul-de-sacs without social support,” she says. “Most homes have not been updated, taxes are high and residents are unable to recoup what they’ve invested.”
While Krawczyk’s community provides as many senior services as possible, transportation is limited to certain days and hours, making residents dependent upon friends and family. Those who are homebound usually participate in food delivery services and a youth program that hires kids to keep up lawns and do maintenance work. Those who can afford to do so leave for warmer climates. The problem, Krawczyk says, is that as suburban residents age, competition for limited tax dollars increases between seniors who need medical care, transportation and government services, and children who need schools and child care. There’s only so much to go around.
Aging in Place – Like It or Not
That competition is fierce. Nine in 10 older Americans want to stay in their homes as they age, AARP reports. But Jane Hickie, senior research scholar at The Stanford Center on Longevity, says that many of us won’t be able to leave even if we want to. Our homes are our major financial asset, and as our generations – the Baby Boomers and Greatest Generation – age, there is no population group following us that is large enough, or solvent enough, to buy those homes, even if values rebound.
Philip and Barbara Segal, both 85, have lived in Cranston, a suburb of Providence, RI, since 1954. As is true of 65 percent of suburban U.S. households, the Segals have no children living at home. “For now I am able to drive, but if I find that I can’t, we’d probably move to our own apartment in a retirement community,” says Phil. “Still, we would stay in the suburbs where our friends are.”
For seniors like the Segals, staying put, while challenging, won’t be impossible. But it will require a lot of work by both individuals and communities, and a reprioritizing of tax dollars and energies. And while the obstacles can be numerous, there are solutions for improving the quality of life for seniors remaining in the suburbs.
Universal Design for Suburban Living
Chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity and asthma can be moderated by forward-thinking community design – adding sidewalks and bicycle paths and locating stores, health facilities and social venues within walking distance of homes. In some cases, it’s remarkable how little has to be done to change a traditional suburban neighborhood. Duany says that just adding more benches and shaded areas, additional medical facilities, grocery and drug stores and meeting places makes a huge difference to the aged.
“The need,” says Jeffrey Anderzhon, an expert on environments for the aging and elderly, “is to determine how to design innovative ways to retrofit suburban communities.” June Williamson, associate professor of architecture at the City College of New York, and Ellen Dunham-Jones, co-authors of Retrofitting Suburbia, suggest retooling suburban malls and shopping centers to create communities like Winter Park Village, FL. This former shopping mall has been re-imagined as a mixed-use community, with residential housing, outdoor public spaces, brick-lined streets, common spaces, office spaces, restaurants and retail shops, to accommodate older Americans, but Americans of all ages.
Martha Aron, 60, of Kentlands, a mixed-used community in Maryland much like Winter Park Village, says that after walking to pick up a prescription at the drugstore, she often sits in the park to relax and meet other neighbors, instead of going home alone to an empty apartment. “Talking to other people,” she says, “is the best medicine.”