Local Needs Demand Senior Activists

Creating senior-friendly communities will require extensive lobbying and work at the local level.

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Of all the aging statistics that get tossed around these days, the one that has me quaking is that the population of people aged 65 and older will rise by 36 percent between 2010 (that’s next year, folks) and 2020. This is not a guess. These people have been alive for a long time and their survival rates are well known. However, don’t be surprised when the reality of all these aging people becomes yet another crisis that’s been hiding in plain sight.

Another nearly ironclad number is that people overwhelmingly prefer to stay in their own homes as they get older. The surveys show this preference at nearly 90 percent and it tends not to change much over time. So, while there is always going to be interest in the next new hot retirement spot, most people will retire right where they are, and try to stay there. 

Now, America is not only a young nation but a place that has made youth its cultural centerpiece. After World War II, the automobile supported an explosion of suburban communities whose primary purpose was to house growing families in search of open spaces, good schools and safe environments in which to raise their kids. As an aging society, we’re going to have to shift gears, and while we’ve had plenty of time to adjust to the wave of aging Boomers, very few communities have done a whole lot about it.

Elinor Ginzler, senior vice president for livable communities at AARP, thinks the economic and housing meltdowns have shifted attention in local communities. Local governments are understandably worried about maintaining city services and their schools as they watch tax revenues take a swoon that could last for years.  Providing enhanced transportation and pedestrian-friendly environments for aging populations is, by comparison, hardly a compelling issue. Yet it’s a real issue, and Ginzler says older residents need to step up and effectively seek community changes to better accommodate aging residents.

At U.S. News’ request, Ginzler provided a list of steps that seniors can take at the local level to take better control of their futures:

  • Start a conversation in your neighborhood association or other membership organization about elder readiness. Do a neighborhood assessment for livability.
  • Get your neighborhood association to lobby your city council to develop an “elder readiness” plan that will help your town prepare for the transit, housing, employment and recreation needs of the boomer generation in city plans. 
  • Get a group of neighbors together to organize a “village” program like Beacon Hill Village, a membership concierge service which helps people in the neighborhood access goods and services they need to live comfortably in their homes.
  • Work with your sorority or other membership group to start up a volunteer driver program for people who no longer drive. (Or volunteer to drive older members of your church or synagogue, club or association.) Men outlive their driving by 6-8 years, women by 8-10, but many stop driving at night long before they stop driving entirely. 
  • Clock the distance it takes to walk to your grocery store, hairdresser, physician or other needs. If they are too far away, organize your neighbors to work with local business groups to prove there is a market for new closer retailers, restaurants and services. 
  • Work with your neighborhood association and local transit provider to conduct travel training for the neighborhood. Have your local transit company or agency on aging periodically come by to introduce neighbors and newcomers to the buses and other transit that serve the area, where they go, what they cost, how to ride them, and their schedules. Then organize the transit riders to lobby for bus shelters and midday service.
  • Find the worst left turns on your regular routes and lobby your town’s traffic engineer to install left turn lanes and signals. Most older-driver crashes occur at intersections and involve left turns.