An elderly woman waits to cross an intersection near her Atlanta apartment.
An elderly woman waits to cross an intersection near her Atlanta apartment. David Goldman/AP

Can their cities accommodate them?

Updated: October 05, 2017

Plenty of retirees still dream of retiring to a sun-soaked southern locale—witness the still-vigorous growth of cities like Phoenix, Arizona, and Fort Myers, Florida. But the vast majority of older Americans—more than 70 percent of those over 50, according to a 2014 AARP survey—plan to “age in place,” or stay in their homes or communities. And the desire to stay put persists across urban, suburban, and rural residents—even in Snow Belt cities and among those with the financial resources to buy that condo in Boca or Scottsdale.

“Across the country, people are getting older, living longer, and staying in their communities,” says Rodney Harrell, the director of AARP’s Livable Communities program. “People move to where they like to live, they stay awhile, and then they don’t want to leave.” In cities, Harrell says, people often focus on remaining in their neighborhood—an area where for decades they may have walked through the same park, purchased groceries at the same store, and attended the same place of worship.

Welltower, a company that owns health-care real estate, from retirement communities to outpatient medical office buildings, recently surveyed 3,000 people to find out more about this desire among urbanites to age in place. Respondents were of various ages—Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials—and lived in 10 cities across the country, from Seattle to Houston to Boston. One Canadian city—Toronto—was also included.

The survey showed that 7 out of 10 urbanites still want to live in their city after the age of 80. For Boomers, the share was higher, at 8 out of 10. The result was fairly uniform across the cities. Though some residents ranked their metropolises higher for livability for older residents—Washington, D.C., Miami, and Chicago got the highest marks, while Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City received the lowest—all respondents were still largely interested in staying and complimentary of their respective cities.  

All generations had the same top concern for their older selves: access to high-quality health care. For 61 percent, having a good doctor was the highest priority, in contrast to the 21 percent who cited proximity to health care facilities. Baby Boomers and Millennials also shared other top concerns, namely good public transportation and proximity to family (Millennials ranked family higher than Boomers). Respondents across the board appear to have a surprisingly large amount of faith in their city’s transit: 84 percent said it’s well equipped for the elderly.

The survey also revealed that all generations are thinking of their 80-plus lives as active ones: 8 out of 10 said they want to make new friends at this age, and nearly 6 want time for romance and an active sex life. One in five expect to work part or full time after 80. And many see cities as better places to accomplish these goals. Sixty percent, for instance, believe it’s easier to meet people in cities—three times higher than other places.

While it’s heartening that so many urbanites—of all generations—see their older years in this vibrant light, in many ways we’re not ready for the surge in our aging population, regardless of where they live. By 2035, one in three U.S. households, versus today’s one in five, will be headed by someone 65 or older. This will also mean a population with one in five people over 65—almost 80 million people—up from one in seven today. That’s an increase of more than 30 million people over the next two decades.

As CityLab reported earlier this year, this presents numerous challenges, especially for those who want to age in place. Only 1 percent of our housing stock is currently equipped with “universal design” elements that aid older residents, like no-step entrances, single-floor living, and wide halls and doorways. And more older adults also means more lower-income adults, who will struggle to afford the rent or mortgage, let alone modify their living space or employ in-home nursing care.  

Harrell recommends that cities join formal programs to help them better prepare for the coming demographic shift, such as AARP’s Network of Age-Friendly Communities. Currently 188 U.S. cities have signed up, meaning their elected officials have made a commitment to assess their community’s needs, make plans for change, and then implement those plans.

One example of such change is in Washington, D.C., a city famed as a magnet for young people that is making efforts to be more age-friendly. The city government has teamed up with the transit authority to develop a training program for older riders and those with disabilities who find taking the Metro or bus hard to face. “Transportation systems can be very intimidating to people who don’t know how to use them,” says Harrell. “And it can be even worse if you have cognitive or physical issues, such as difficultly walking.”

The free-of-charge program includes presentations by professional travel trainers, individual or group travel training, and tours of Metro stations. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority says the goal is to enable and empower people to travel independently to a regularly visited destination and back.

Harrell also points to efforts in Philadelphia to provide affordable and welcoming housing for LGBTQ older adults. In 2014, the city built the six-story, 56-unit John C. Anderson Apartments, which caters to the low-income LGBTQ community. State and federal funds, as well as federal tax credits, financed the building. Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities are also spearheading such housing—and more is needed. Research indicates that the number of LGBTQ elders will reach three million by 2030—double what it is now. SAGE, an advocacy organization for LGBTQ elders, recently launched a national initiative focused on housing needs, including a map listing resources in every state.

“These initiatives are about making sure that urban residents of all ages have options that will meet their needs,” says Harrell. “They really take thoughtful planning and policymaking.”

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