Eye from Albany
Tidal wave of seniors approaching
by Paul M. Bray
Suburbs with their detached homes, lawns and good schools were made for the growing years of the baby boomers. The oldest boomers turned 50 in 1996. Now that they are reaching their senior years one can expect another transformational change in our landscape, but there is no guarantee that whatever that change is it will be the best for seniors or the society as a whole.
The track record of the Boomers teaches us that as the “young elderly” they are not going to go quietly into their senior years. They are healthier, wealthier and more mobile and worldly than prior generations of seniors. If trends continue, most boomers will prefer to stay in their single family homes or, in New York City, their family apartments. In the case of those remaining in the suburbs, the question will be whether the suburbs can be retrofitted to meet the needs of an aging population.
Other phenomena are at work including the continuation of an out migration of seniors with their assets to warmer areas like Florida and Arizona and, within the State, a move to age-segregated retirement communities. For older seniors there has been a mushrooming of private senior housing projects providing for either/or a mix of independent and assisted living.
Some people like Vera Prosper, Ph.D. at the New York State Office of the Aging are looking at the housing, transportation and other societal impacts of the approaching tidal wave of elderly that are going to have a dramatic and challenging effect on the State. Yet, whether it is because of a collective denial about aging or whatever other reason, neither the public nor our governmental leaders appear to have a clue about what life in a State with an aging population will be. To the extent that senior issues are addressed, it is with band aids and certainly without attention to building for an intergenerational society that effectively harnesses and integrates the strengths and capabilities that come with aging.
I can envision that we are at a fork in the road with the aging Boomers. Either they will be a catalyst for a rebirth of our traditional cities and small towns as centers for education, culture and health services or, regrettably, they will end up creating a continued fragmentation of our landscape with seniors physically and socially separated and isolated in gated, age-segregated communities. The marketplace can be harnessed for the former with public leadership and investment. Otherwise, the market will go to the low hanging fruit as it did with suburban sprawl and we will end up with a society segregated by age.
Dr. Prosper is the optimist. She believes in the boomer’s ability and will to maintain their connection and interaction with the rest of the community and to live in intergenerational communities. She writes that, “…they have a heightened interest in maintaining access to continuing educational and cultural opportunities.” I agree, but wonder if aging boomers can move beyond their suburban and auto dependent experience to adapt to an urban context required to have age integrated living.
The State needs to interactively take planning for an older society up some notches beginning with visioning on how we want age-integrated communities to look and identifying what seniors can contribute to healthy communities. A return to our traditional, walkable cities like Albany and Buffalo, for example, with their colleges, museums and other cultural institutions, recreational facilities and health services offer a wealth of opportunities for seniors to both benefit themselves and contribute as volunteers, mentors and more actively in second or even third careers. Small towns across the State could find a new life as living retire communities.
Transportation decision makers have to get with it, shifting from highways to transit and pedestrian infrastructure, when it comes to serving a aging population. One already sees too many seniors forced to continue to drive when it is no longer safe because they have no other reliable way of getting around. When the State contributes funds to senior housing, it should require that housing to be transit accessible.
Cities and small towns need to get smart about making themselves attractive for senior living and capitalizing on the talents and skills seniors have to offer the larger community. Through design and environmental controls, neighborhoods can be planned to serve the needs of young and old and to foster interdependence between generations. One place where this is beginning to happen is the development of intergenerational housing on college and university campuses.
Our aging population creates a situation where the public and private sectors have so much to do and relatively little time to do it. If we can refine a vision for intergenerational living and make the critical public investments, this time, for example, in transit rather than highways as was done for the boomers during their suburban years, the future can be rosy.