CityFixer

What Does 'Livable' Mean to Older Americans?

Turns out, we're not good at anticipating the kind of community we'll need as we age.

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People in the United States are getting older. But increasingly, they don't want to live in some old folks' community.

Nearly 20 percent of Americans will be over 65 by 2030, up from 12 percent in 2009. That boom has been accompanied by the rise of a concept known as "aging in place," a phrase unknown a generation ago but that has become a common buzzword today. It describes the rising trend toward older people staying put, rather than moving away from the neighborhoods where they've spent their younger years.

But will they be able to live safely and comfortably? And what will their lives be like as their needs and abilities change over time?

The AARP is developing a "livability index" to measure whether the country's neighborhoods are meeting the needs and desires of its older citizens. A new report out today from their Public Policy Institute, "What Is Livable? Community Preferences of Older Adults" [PDF] is part of that effort. The report surveyed more than 4,500 people from a wide range of income groups, ethnicities, and types of community, and found that 71 percent of those surveyed between the ages of 50 and 64 want to continue living where they are. Eighty-seven percent of those over 65 want to remain in their current homes.

The researchers asked respondents to rank which local government actions were most important for them. Three top priorities emerged: increased police presence; better schools; and a more pedestrian-friendly environment. That's not so different from what they want when they're younger. "Those are three things that would completely overlap with changes that would benefit all in the community," says Rodney Harrell, one of the lead researchers on the project.

Digging deeper into the responses reveals significant differences, among the survey subjects depending on their income levels and the type of communities they live in. Renters put a much higher priority on the development of affordable housing, for instance, and households with people with disabilities were more concerned with better transportation services for seniors and the disabled. For the most part, people want to prioritize services that address their personal needs directly.

The researchers found that until they faced a major life change, such as the loss of driving ability or the development of a physical impairment, people did not take the possibility of such a transformation into account. "Perceptions of a livable community are made when choosing housing, and they may not change as the person ages, unless a major life change forces a new perspective," according to the report.

No one wants to face the idea that he or she will become less physically competent over time, yet that is a real possibility for many of us. That gap in perception can be especially problematic, says researcher Jana Lynott, when it comes to mobility. Older people who are car-dependent don't tend to plan for the time that they might be unable to drive. If they live in a place where driving is central to life, as many Americans do, they can end up unable to reach stores, health care services, and their social networks. "One in five people over 65 don’t drive," says Lynott. "We outlive our driving years by on average a decade. We all have to educate people about realities of aging."

“We live differently than we did before, we planned for the automobile,” says Harrell. "That can result in isolation. People are stuck. They might not be able to get to their families and social networks."

The reality of the changing needs of older people should inform the way communities are planned and improved, says Harrell. And the needs of an aging population dovetail with many of the trends seen among millennials, who are interested in living less auto-centric lifestyles. "We want policymakers to understand that we need to make communities that meet those needs," Harrell says. "We need to start planning for all ages. A community that works for older people works for everyone."

Top image: Aaron Amat/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.