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Do Seniors Want the Livability Improvements AARP Wants For Them?

Oahu, Hawaii should be the ideal place to walk for transportation, but it has the nation’s highest pedestrian fatality rate for senior citizens – more than twice the next-highest state. So the state enacted a Complete Streets policy in 2009, seeking to “reasonably accommodate” everyone -- “pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, motorists, and persons of all ages and abilities” -- on public roadways.

Simple street design improvements can encourage seniors to walk more, enhancing their mobility and their physical health. Photo courtesy of Dan Burden, Walkable & Livable Communities Institute, via ##

California, meanwhile, seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, passed a law in 2008 integrating transportation and land use planning at all levels, leading to “more transit and fewer auto-dependent communities” and less “suburban development that is far from retail and employment centers.”

AARP collected these and many, many more case studies of livability initiatives in a report it published last year on state policies and practices that enable seniors to “age in place.” The organization says nearly 90 percent of people over age 65 say they want to stay in their home as long as possible. If the graying baby boomers reject the institutionalized old age that has been the fate of so many, communities will have to do a better job accommodating the needs of older residents.

In the year since AARP published its catalogue of best practices, they’ve taken their program across the country. In conjunction with Governing Magazine, the group has held roundtables in Des Moines, Lansing, Philadelphia and Salt Lake City to talk about the challenges those cities face as they await the so-called “silver tsunami.”

Amy Levner, manager of AARP’s Home and Community program, says the common thread among rural and urban communities alike is the “pressure on local budgets.”

Luckily, very few of the best practices in AARP’s handbook have a high price tag. In fact, many of them have the potential to save money (finding multiple uses for public facilities like schools, for example) or make money (like transit-oriented development). The organization suggests everything from integrated planning and complete streets to electric cars that “chirp” to alert pedestrians that a moving car is nearby.

Levner said the roundtables showed the depth of interest and excitement in livable communities. In Utah, the governor himself attended the event. The National Association of Counties, the Agriculture Department, Citigroup, and the Stanford Center on Longevity are among the many partners AARP has recruited to help with the livability effort.

In some cases, the changes AARP advocates for the benefit of the older population can seem contrary to what the older population has chosen for itself. After all, 64 percent of seniors that live in metropolitan areas live outside the urban core, according to AARP. Transportation for America has sounded the alarm about seniors being stuck at home with no mobility options once they stop driving, but those same seniors are the ones declaring their intention to live out their years where they are: in auto-oriented suburbs.

Local jurisdictions can wear themselves out building accessible, affordable multi-family housing in dense, mixed-use, transit-oriented neighborhoods, but the fact is, seniors have expressed their desire to stay in their own homes.

Levner says there’s more nuance than that in the 90 percent statistic, and that really, what boomers are saying is that they’re not about to take off for Florida or Arizona like their parents did. The 2011 report echoes that interpretation, stressing the importance of staying in the same community, whether or not seniors change houses.

During a lifetime, people develop connections to place and form relationships with neighbors, doctors, hairdressers and shopkeepers. They become intimately familiar with the route to downtown, the rhythm of summer concerts at the band shell park, the best places to get a coveted burger and personalized greeting. These associations, of value to both the individual and the community, cannot be quickly or easily replicated in a new environment. In essence, they can play a pivotal role in successful aging.

But the crux of that same report is the statistic that nearly 90 percent of seniors "want to stay in their residence for as long as possible, and 80 percent believe their current residence is where they will always live” (emphasis mine).

Livability improvements will benefit all generations and demographics, and the changes to accommodate seniors will be welcome someday – if not by the boomer generation, then by the next cohort of retirees. And they're not just for seniors. In fact, the other demographic that’s equally passionate about improved transit and walkability is the millennials, four decades younger than the boomers.

“Our communities are very much structured around school-age children," Levner said. "But in the future, kids are going to make up a much smaller percentage of the population. Fortunately, a lot of the livable-communities features we want to see implemented benefit everybody.”

As AARP noted in its report, localities looking to accommodate seniors can improve services for everyone else. With rural inter-city transportation on a starvation diet due to budget cuts, for instance, seniors aren’t the only ones in need of good options:

Montana has made a concerted effort to address these issues. Three years ago, the state had nine rural transportation systems; today, there are almost 40. To achieve this, the state went to city and county governments and several county Councils on Aging (each of which already operated some type of bus service) and offered to help them devise and pay for a coordinated plan. “We went to these Councils on Aging and said, ‘You’re already running a senior bus service; if you open your doors to everyone, print a schedule and follow the FTA guidelines, we will help you pull it all together and receive FTA funding,’” said [Audrey Allums, transit section supervisor for the Montana DOT].

There are many communities that aren’t doing enough to prepare for the demographic shifts that are underway, however. Some are barely even aware of them. “There are a lot of localities that are not thinking about this yet -- to a surprising degree, actually,” said Levner.

But some communities do see the writing on the wall. Governing reported in September that officials in Arlington, Virginia have quietly set about widening sidewalks, installing crosswalk countdown clocks, and lowering bus platforms in anticipation of a graying populace.

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