What Makes A Senior-Friendly Community?

Related topics: Health & Wellness, Senior Lifestyles

Today there are 40 million American seniors, and the U.S. Census Bureau projects that as the large baby boomer population ages, this number will more than double by mid-century. At that point, say demographers, over 20 percent of the population will be older than 65. What will this mean for our communities?

The Census report says that while many older Americans are taking better care of their health, the rate of chronic disease nonetheless is rising. And a caregiving crisis is on the horizon. Much elder care today is provided by family members and friends—but that may be less of an option for the boomers. According to Dr. Richard Suzman, Ph.D., of the National Institute on Aging, "Baby boomers had far fewer children than their parents. Combined with a higher divorce rate and disrupted family structures, this will result in fewer family members to provide long-term care in the future. This will become more serious as people live longer with conditions such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's."

Adding to this challenge, more seniors than ever express a strong preference for living in their own homes. Are our communities ready to support their health and well-being? The Census Bureau's Jennifer Ortman says, "Changes in the age structure of the U.S. population will have implications for health care services and providers, national and local policymakers, and businesses seeking to anticipate the influence that this population may have on their services, family structure and the American landscape."

Many communities are already taking innovative steps to adapt to the growing number of older members. Senior services agencies team with universities and foundations to devise the best ways of providing services even in the face of ongoing budget cuts. New York City has created Aging Improvement Districts where amenities that help seniors stay active and engaged are high priority. Dementia care providers are looking to a model from the Netherlands where entire self-contained communities are built to accommodate the needs of people with Alzheimer's disease. Across the country, seniors are banding into formal and informal neighborhood groups (often called "villages") to jointly access services that allow them to age in place. And urban planners have long noted the growth of NORCs—naturally occurring retirement communities—which are neighborhoods or apartment buildings that happen to have a large proportion of senior residents, allowing services to be conveniently provided.

Extensive research confirms the value of services and urban design that allow older adults to remain physically and socially active. Are these improvements costly? Certainly. But senior-friendly features actually save communities money in the long run by promoting senior health and independence.

The MetLife Mature Market Institute recently listed six factors that are the most critical for creating senior-friendly communities:

  • Housing: Accessible housing that is affordable. Zoning laws that permit flexible housing arrangements such as building assisted living facilities or private homes on relatively small lots.
  • Safe neighborhoods: Low crime rates and emergency preparedness plans that take the needs of older residents into account.
  • Healthcare: An adequate number of doctors (primary care and specialists) and hospitals, and the presence of preventive health care programs.
  • Supportive services: The presence of home and community-based caregiving support services and the availability of home care, meals-on-wheels and adult day care.
  • Goods, services and amenities: Retail outlets within walking distance, restaurants and grocery stores offering healthy foods, and policies supportive of local farmers' markets.
  • Social integration: Programs and organizations that promote social activities and intergenerational contact, such as places of worship, libraries, museums, colleges and universities.
  • Transportation: Mass transit, senior transportation programs, walkable neighborhoods that are safe for pedestrians, nearby parks and recreation, roads with visible signage, adequate lighting, and adequate vehicle and pedestrian safety at intersections.

New Emphasis on Walkability

It's worth paying special attention to the last item on the MetLife wish list. The ability to safely and conveniently walk to a store, a park, or a senior center helps older adults avoid loneliness, isolation and depression. And walking is one of the best forms of exercise. Recent studies link walkable neighborhoods with a reduction in a host of chronic illnesses. In one of the most recent studies, the American Diabetes Association found that people who live in a walkable neighborhood have lower rates of obesity, and of diabetes and its complications. Says study author Gillian Booth, an endocrinologist at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, "How we build our cities matters in terms of our overall health. This is one piece of a puzzle that we can potentially do something about. As a society, we have engineered physical activity out of our lives. Every opportunity to walk, to get outside, or to go to the corner store can have a big impact on our risk for diabetes and becoming overweight."

How do we increase the walkability factor for older adults? Streets and sidewalks should be in good repair, and designed for the needs of senior pedestrians, with benches for resting, curb cuts for accessibility, good lighting, clear signage and security features. A recent study also revealed that many walk/don't walk signals may provide inadequate time for the safe crossing of elderly pedestrians.

One more ingredient for a walkable neighborhood might surprise you. A study from Imperial College in London found that providing seniors with free transit passes resulted in an increase in physical activity. Does that mean that sitting on the bus is good exercise? No, but the walk to the bus stop is, and seniors with a bus pass are more likely to go to parks, shopping and other places where they will be physically active.

Senior Friendly Communities: Not for Seniors Only

The Census Bureau also reported that while some older adults prefer to live in a retirement community or other seniors-only environment, the majority want to live in an intergenerational setting if possible. Senior living organizations are taking note, and more senior housing projects are paired with housing for people of every age, which provides benefits for everyone. And design features that are good for seniors are good for people of every age and ability. Says AARP Vice-President for Policy Debra Whitman, "The fundamental elements of a community that will please America's aging population will equally serve future generations."

Learn More

Read an overview of "65+ in the United States" on the U.S. Census Bureau website, where you can also find the entire report

Find the full "Livable Community Indicators for Sustainable Aging in Place" study on the MetLife Mature Market Institute website.

See "What is Livable? Community Preferences of Older Adults" on the AARP website.

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2014 IlluminAge.

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