Planning for the aging baby boomers; It is time for a vision

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Eye from Albany
March 2004

Planning for the aging baby boomers; It is time for a vision
by Paul M. Bray

The impact of an aging population is starting to hit home. In the Albany suburb of Colonie a 144-unit, three story senior housing project has gotten a not in my backyard response. A neighboring homeowner was quoted in the newspaper as declaring, “Do you realize how big that building is? Have you ever seen a football field?” As this reflects, first ripples of what is likely to be a tsunami are beginning to happen as suburbs have to reinvent themselves for the aging baby boomers and intergenerational living.

Some town supervisors at the February 2004 Training School and Annual Meeting of the Association of Towns got a taste of what is in store for them as the State’s population get older. The message was from a panel on Senior Demographics and trends, design, location and land use and housing financing with Vera Prosper of NYSOFA, Joan Hoover of NYSDHCR, Patricia Pollak from Cornell and me.

Vera Prosper painted the picture of the demographics. The first wave of baby boomers to hit 60 years of age is almost upon us and from here on the percentage of aging in our State’s population is going to grow significantly. Most seniors prefer to age in place, in their homes and communities, and that is going to create the need, for example, for retrofitting homes with universal design features and for retrofitting communities perhaps with mixed use infill so that there is mobility or ability to go to the grocery store, pharmacy or doctor’s office without needing to drive an auto. The demand for health and social services is going to spiral upwards.

We are already seeing a significant number of healthy seniors migrating out of the State with their money only to return when they become the frail elderly and need services.

Given the changes in store it is remarkable how little public attention has been given to forthcoming demographic changes, what they will mean and how society should and can respond.

In preparing my presentation I did a little research and found an article written almost 50 years ago in 1956 by Louis Mumford entitled “Quarters for an Aging Population”. Mumford was right on the mark when he wrote:

“Just as the young proceed with their growth through multiplying their contacts with the environment and enlarging their encounters with people other than their families, so the aged may slow down their process of deterioration, overcoming their loneliness and their sense of not being wanted, by finding in their neighborhood a fresh field for their activities.

But before such an environment can be created, we must challenge the whole theory of segregation upon which so many American communities have been zoned: zoned so that one-family houses and apartment houses, or row houses and free-standing houses, cannot be built side by side; zoned so strictly for a residential use that in many suburban communities one cannot buy a loaf of bread without going a mile or two by car to the shops.

Under our zoning ordinances, it is impossible to give either the young or the old the kind of occupational and environmental variety that a neighborhood unit should have.

Therefore, we shall not be able to care for the aged on the scale of their needs or our national wealth demands, until we are ready to put into the rebuilding of human communities something like the zeal, the energy, the skill, the dedication we give to the monomaniac production of motor cars and superhighways.” We haven’t followed Mumford advice.

Today, one can say that we know how to build town houses without knowing how to build towns. We are, for example, seeing manor house style senior independent and assisted living structures built in Greenfield’s without pedestrian or transit access to a food market, pharmacy, library or restaurant. As the senior residents lose their ability to drive, those seniors rich enough to afford this manor house style living are left to be beached whales in a monoculture of the aged. This is a far cry for the enriching community environment that Mumford believed benefits seniors and the whole community by making it possible for seniors to contribute their skills to the larger public welfare.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, a planning and environmental law firm in Albany, New York. His e-mail is pmbray@aol.com.