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How Can Cities Make Life Easier for the Elderly?

One city in South Carolina comes up with some innovative solutions


In this weeks' The Big Fix, writer John Lorinc looked at how cities can support their aging populations. He writes:

How do we create cities in which both 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds can move about safely and enjoyably? "We have to stop building cities as if everyone is 30 years-old and athletic," says Gil Penalosa, director of Toronto's 8-80 Cities.

His 8 to 80 litmus test involves imagining a public space, but especially a busy city street or intersection, and asking whether it is suitable for young and old alike. In all too many locations – signalized crossings on wide suburban arterials, narrow bike lanes, over-taxed sidewalks, etc. – the answer will be no.

It's a challenge the planners over in Aiken, South Carolina, know too well. About 10 years ago, Aiken was named one of the top ten retirement communities in the U.S. "That started the ball rolling," says Glenn Parker, Director of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. "We became a destination." Now, almost a quarter of the population is over 65.

In response, Aiken formed a senior commission - it's one of the first city council-appointed boards in the country. The commission is tasked with addressing some of the same problems Penalosa explores.

They've considered widening the sidewalks so a golf cart can get through (many of the city's seniors use carts to get around). The city also allows seniors to work off their tax debt - they can sign up to fill a city position (at minimum wage) without pay until they cover their income taxes.

Officials have also looked for ways to keep seniors engaged in city life. "We put out questionnaires asking folks what they want from the city," Parker says. "Seniors wanted places to go, they wanted to be challenged."

In response, the city built new clay tennis courts, which are easier on the knees. They hold yoga and aerobics classes for seniors. The local news channel even hosts The Gentle Stretch, a daily workout show geared toward the elderly. One program that hasn't caught on - the senior softball league.

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.