Since Jan. 1, 2011, 10,000 Baby Boomers are eligible to retire daily, and Americans 65 and older will make up 19 percent of the population by 2030. Many of those Baby Boomers would like to stay in their own homes as they age – a trend called “aging in place” – born of their desire to remain in familiar surroundings.
This is a happy trend for municipalities, because not only does it costs less for older adults to remain in their own homes, but they have a lot to contribute to their communities. However, many municipalities could be more senior friendly.
There are several key areas that make a city more livable for seniors, including: providing reliable transportation; making neighborhoods walkable; providing social engagement and reducing isolation; providing low-cost housing and job training opportunities; and making older adults safe in their homes.
When older adults can no longer drive, they become very isolated – since roughly 90 percent of trips are taken by automobile – and that is the root of health and mental problems for many seniors. One of the indicators of good mental and physical health is a support network of five or more people. A strong public transportation network can make it easier for older adults to engage socially, access necessary services and participate in community events.
General improvements for your public transit system won’t only benefit older adults, but the entirety of the commuters in the community. Commuters want three things: frequent service, an efficient ticketing system; and attention to transit as a public space.
Making service available every fifteen minutes is the gold standard, and your ticketing system can be made more efficient through the use of available technologies, such as using smart phone ticketing apps. Consider making transit buildings and stops a public space that combines infrastructure, architecture, programming and public art. Additionally, installing benches at stops and stations make waiting easier for older adults.
When considering older adults’ needs in the transit sphere, consider transit as regional infrastructure – don’t force commuters to have multiple passes and maps to get from one place to another, even if they are switching between both means of transit and transit authorities. Several communities have seen success with one pass covering multiple authorities. Furthermore, some municipalities, such as Seattle, have given flat, discounted rates to older adults.
In addition to social engagement and avoiding depression, the best indications of healthy aging is moderate drinking, not smoking and walking. Making your neighborhoods more walkable doesn’t only benefit the health of older adults, but the entire community.
However, not enough cities have invested in improving the walkability of their neighborhoods – the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance has given the country an “F” for walkability.
Improving walkability isn’t only about smooth sidewalks and curb cuts for wheelchairs and walkers, but creating mixed use neighborhoods with “walk appeal.” A neighborhood with a mix of residential, retail, business and public spaces becomes a destination to go to, instead of a place to travel from.
Improving streetscaping features, such as lighting, handicap-accessible sidewalks, curb cuts and benches, improves not only appearance, but also safety, while additions such as trees, landscaping and building facades provides valuable “greening” of public spaces and improves the “walk appeal,” or how welcoming it is to be in a neighborhood versus the mere ability to navigate it. To encourage walking, new buildings should be oriented to the street, with an entrance on the sidewalk and parking at the rear.
Again, while an entire community would reap the benefits of walkability, making small tweaks, such as increasing the time to cross the street at intersections, adding pedestrian friendly medians and benches and renovating lighting and sidewalks with an eye toward accessibility and safety, makes it workable for older adults as well.
One in six adults 65 or older lives alone, and suffering from loneliness means older adults are 45 percent more likely to die and 59 percent more likely to see a decline in health over six years. If encouraging older adults to exercise through creating walkable neighborhoods addresses physical health, then providing social engagement opportunities improves mental health.
In fact, providing reliable transportation and creating walkable neighborhoods is the first step in encouraging social engagement. If you can’t get residents out of their homes, then they won’t become engaged. Transportation is part of the solution, not the entirety – older adults need somewhere to go, which is why providing cultural and volunteer opportunities geared toward older adults is important.
When providing volunteer opportunities, consider community organization training. Older adults are in a position to assess what their community needs and how best to address it. Having a sense of purpose helps older adults combat depression and reduces dementia-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
Volunteer opportunities also are available through AmeriCorps’ Senior Corps, which provides grants and stipends, funding programs such as Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions and the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), which offers opportunities in tutoring and teaching English as a second language.
Providing cultural opportunities can be as easy as discounts and hours reserved for older adults during cultural events and at community facilities. Colleges and universities can play an important role, as many offer tuition waivers or scholarships for older adults who want to continue their education and tax benefits are available to those who go back to school. A program of informal history, art, literature, science and technology lectures also can promote learning, which helps older adults’ cognitive abilities and social engagement. Continuing education can touch many areas, from cultural to exercise to civic engagement.
When it comes to civic engagement, there are many low-cost or free ways to bring local government to older adults – and the rest of the community. Holding informal open houses, utilizing tools such as social media and smart phone applications to communicate and holding occasional meetings at times and venues more convenient to the public are all ways to promote engagement.
For older adults’ special needs, consider the venues used for meetings: turnstiles and stairs can prevent older adults from attending. Many public buildings don’t take into account older adults’ particular needs, and involving them in plans for renovations or new construction are great ways to get them involved.
One in six Baby Boomers live in poverty and half of those facing retirement have less than $10,000 in the bank – the real estate bubble destroyed a third of Boomers’ wealth. Only one-third of them have developed a retirement plan, and many may underestimate how much inflation will eat into their purchasing power after retirement. Meanwhile, a year in a nursing home has a median cost of $85,000.
Even those who are remaining in their own homes may have difficulty managing bills and debts after retiring and moving to a fixed income, while others may have incurred debts while assisting children or grandchildren. Those older adults who have had a spouse die may have not handled finances prior to their spouse’s death or had a reverse mortgage in their spouse’s name.
As the overall working population ages, there is the potential for a labor shortage and knowledge gap, as well as many Baby Boomers coming to the realization that they won’t be able to fully retire. As they transition into “encore careers,” the U.S. Department of Labor’s Senior Community Employment Program allows them to gain work experience at schools, hospitals, day care centers and senior centers for approximately 20 hours a week. Job centers like New York City’s Workforce 1 Career Centers offer services tailored to older adults, like workshops, courses and job training to improve their employment prospects.
While 84 percent of older adults own their own homes, more than 40 percent of Baby Boomers are looking to downsize from their current homes to affordable housing in attractive neighborhoods.
For those older adults who don’t own their own homes, housing should only cost about 30 percent of monthly expenses and the median income of retirees 65 to 74 is approximately $47,000. However, the average income for those between 65 and 69 is $37,200, with roughly one-third of income coming from Social Security, one-third from work and one-third from pension or retirement benefits, according to U.S. News and World Report.
In January 2018, the median monthly rent for a one bedroom apartment in the country’s 100 largest cities ranged from a low of $560 in Wichita, Kansas, ($6,720 per year) to a high of $2,390 in San Francisco ($28,680 per year). Since this is the median, some older adults will be in better circumstances, while others will be in worse.
Inclusionary zoning can make high-density, diverse neighborhoods affordable for low-income residents, including older adults by incentivizing developers to set aside units in new housing for low-income residents. Accessory Dwelling Units – so-called “granny flats” – are additional units, such as apartments in a basement or attic or over a garage or tiny houses on foundations, on the same property as a single family home. They have become a way to expand housing to include relatives or earn extra money through rental – both things that make them attractive to older adults.
While two-thirds of Baby Boomers plan to age in place, more than 80 percent of them own their own single family homes – 32 million of them. As they age, their at-home needs are changing – many need retrofits to their homes so they can remain there longer and more safely.
Older adult friendly fixes, include widening doorways and removing thresholds, placing power outlets higher on walls, replacing doorknobs and faucet handles with levers, replacing toggle switches with rocker switchers, placing handrails on both sides of a stairwell, and installing movable shower heads and bathroom grab bars, make it possible for them to remain in their homes – and out of elder care facilities.
Home maintenance is where home safety and finances intersect for older adults. Georgia Institute of Technology researchers studied how aging affects performing home maintenance, exploring issues older adults have with maintaining their home and issues they might have in performing those tasks in the future. The most difficult home maintenance activities included cleaning, outdoor work, home upkeep and repair and indoor updating and remodeling. Home upkeep accounted for 16 percent of difficult tasks, including heating, ventilating and air conditioning maintenance.
When it comes to finances, while the HomeServe USA State of the Home Winter 2017 survey indicates that older adults are more financially prepared for emergency home maintenance – approximately 48 percent of older adults have funds set aside – but would rather spend the money on remodeling their homes.
The National League of Cities Water Service Line Warranty Program, administered by HomeServe, can help older adults keep that money in their pocket with warranties covering everything from water and sewer service lines to indoor plumbing, making home maintenance low-cost and as easy as picking up the phone.