On Senior Citizens' Day, a Look at Planning and Design

CC BY 2.0. Cities, and exercise, keep you young/ Lloyd Alter

A roundup of posts on MNN relating to aging boomers. Just don't call us senior citizens!

It is evidently Senior Citizens' day; it used to be on August 14 to celebrate Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing the Social Security Act in 1935, but that was too socialist for Ronald Reagan, who declared August 21 to be National Senior Citizens Day, "to bring awareness of social, health, and economic issues that affect senior citizens."

But I would argue that there is no set day when one becomes old. I have been writing about this subject for some time on sister site MNN.com, where I objected to the use of the words "senior citizen" and I am not alone. The Journal of the American Geriatrics won't even accept papers with the term anymore. They note that "aging needs to be redefined. Widespread negative assumptions about 'getting old' have led the public to take a fatalistic stance that there is not much to be done about aging." I wrote:

There is much to be done before we all start getting blood transfusions like Peter Thiel. Perhaps the first is to recognize that everyone is different; I know 50-year-olds who are lonely, tired of their jobs and are physical wrecks; I know 85-year-olds who fill lecture halls to discuss their latest book. We don’t fall apart in the same way and according to the same schedule.

Part 1: Urban design and housing

The big wave of aging baby boomers is coming

The question is, will the world be ready?

Just like surfers, getting ready for the wave of boomers is all about timing. Wikipedia

The fact of the matter is that there are seventy million baby boomers, ten thousand of which turn 65, the standard date for senior citizenship, every day. The baby boomers have always had a huge effect on society and will continue to do so. As they age in the next 10 to 20 years they will cause vast changes in our cities, our suburbs and our economy. When you look at what is being done to get ready for them, you can only wonder what everybody is thinking. I quoted one expert:

It's as if marketers all wear the same blinders. Because so many marketing executives are under 40 — or even under 30 — many presume most consumers not only think like them, but want to be like them....Most marketing that targets Boomers presumes there's something wrong with them that needs fixing, such as age spots, wrinkles or erectile dysfunction. It's malady-based. For the most part, it's not accurate."

More: The big wave of aging baby boomers is coming

When you talk to or survey baby boomers, the biggest problem they think they face is aging in place -- spending money on renovations and buying bungalows with wide wheelchair-accessible corridors. This is all malady-based design. But as I will try to make the case here, this is delusional. For the vast majority of older people, the ability to drive goes long before the ability to walk.

A big qualification: Universal design is for everyone, everywhere

what goes bad first: mobility (walking and climbing stairs) comes later than household activities (driving)
What goes wrong first when you get old. JCHS

Before everyone hits the comments button, it is obvious from my favorite graph that there are lots of people who are younger than 60 who already have serious household activity problems; needing wheelchair access has nothing to do with age. That's why I also say we should have Universal Design for everyone. But that does not mean that everyone has to live in a suburban bungalow. In cities, there is no reason not to build apartments so that they are all fully accessible; they do this in Sweden and it is not a big deal. But in cities, fewer people are trapped in their car.

The issue for boomers won't be 'aging in place'.

The real question will be, 'How do I get out of this place?'

Old woman in BMW
You can only do this for so long. Mick Tinbergen via Wikipedia

The New York Times recently ran an article talking about new ride services for older people who can't drive. I wrote:

Reading it makes me want to scream in all bold capital letters: THIS ISN'T A TRANSPORTATION PROBLEM. IT'S AN URBAN DESIGN PROBLEM! Only once, in the entire article, did it mention that we are in this mess because of the great suburban experiment of designing our world around cars...Baby boomers are looking around their houses and thinking "What can I do so that I can age in place?" and investing in renovations, when all the data show that one of the first things go to is the ability to drive — long before the ability to walk. Instead, they should be asking "What can I do to get out of this place? How will I get to the doctor or the grocery?" Every single one of them has to look in the mirror right now and ask themselves, "What do I do when I can't drive?"

Ultimately, we have to build communities for people, not cars, as we have in the past. Most critically, we have to face the inevitability of demographics: Today it's a problem, but in 10 or 15 years, it's a disaster.

More: The issue for boomers won't be 'aging in place'

It won't be pretty when boomers lose their cars.

It's already a problem with seniors in the suburbs, and it's going to explode in coming years.

My mother in law's house
My mother-in-law's house with that rusting Saturn in the driveway. Google Maps

I started it all after watching my mother-in-law age in her suburban sidesplit, and what my wife had to do to take care of her, quoting Jane Gould's terrific book Aging in Suburbia.

An estimated 70 percent of Baby Boomers live in areas served by limited or no public transit. If Boomers stay in their homes as they age and continue to drive their cars, do they put other drivers and pedestrians at risk? We have all heard of the elderly man or woman who can barely see over the dashboard and veers into adjacent lanes.

I wrote three years ago:

The oldest boomers are now just 68. But there are 78 million of them, and as they get older, the impact on suburbia will be profound. More and more of municipalities' taxes will be going to support them instead of schools and parks — Why? Because they vote a lot — while property values and the tax base will decline as whole neighborhoods turn into senior citizens districts, with old Saturns rusting in the driveway like at my mother-in-law’s house. Transit costs will go through the roof as seniors demand services in low-density areas that cannot support it. The fact is, there is a major urban planning disaster staring us all in the face, which is going to seriously hit everyone young and old in about 10 years when the oldest boomers are 78. We have to prepare for it now.

More: It won't be pretty when boomers lose their cars

In her book, Jane Gould thought self-driving cars would make a huge difference. I am not so sure, and have asked Will self-driving cars save seniors in the suburbs? However, if autonomous vehicles do get real, they may totally change the way older people live. In fact we might just live in them.

Soon the nation might be filled with rolling homes full of boomers autonomously moving from buffet restaurant to doctor's office to charging station to Arizona in the winter. I love this idea, going to bed in Buffalo and telling my home to take me to Chicago for a ballgame.

More: How self-driving cars could change the way boomers live

What kind of housing do aging boomers need?

The song is right: You can't always get what you want.

Boomers want bungalows
Boomers want bungalows (and probably a sports car in the driveway.). 50s ad

It seems from all the surveys that boomers want big bungalows. I wrote in New study confirms that boomers are clueless.

The contradictions abound. Americans want a fuller life, but they don’t want to live where the amenities, the libraries and theaters and bookstores and where the other people are, which is in the city. They are worried about their health but don’t want to be where the hospitals and the doctors and the specialists are. They want peace of mind, but they still want 2,000 square feet of house in the middle of a lawn that has to be mowed, on a cul-de-sac where they can’t get transit. Basically they want what they have now, but on one floor.

In fact, stairs are good for you. The longest-lived people in the world live in hill towns in Italy and Greece, where they walk and climb everywhere. Studies in the US back this up; according to the New York Times,

The Harvard Alumni Study found that men who average at least eight flights a day enjoy a 33 percent lower mortality rate than men who are sedentary — and that’s even better than the 22 percent lower death rate men earned by walking 1.3 miles a day.

I call it the stair paradox: we design houses without stairs out of the worry that we might not be able to climb them at some point, but in the process, we bring that point that much closer. I compare it to nutrition, where Gary Taubes blames all our physical woes on sugar, when the usual suspect was fat.

Just as the nutritionists have been proposing a low-fat diet for years, when Taubes recommends low sugar, the planners and retirement home designers are prescribing car-dependent low density, one-floor single-family houses, when the urban design equivalent of sugar is the car — it's our dependence on it that's killing us all.
As much as sugar, cars have made us who we are. Perhaps before it's forced upon them, boomers and seniors should go on a low-car diet. We should not wait until they take our keys away, but instead have to be fit and active enough, and perhaps more importantly, well situated enough, that it won’t matter too much when it happens.

More: What kind of housing do aging boomers need?

This house is not designed to help anyone age gracefully.

In fact, it will probably age you in place.

Next Adventure house plan

Taylor Morrison NEXTadventure home with messy kitchen/Promo image

Here is an example of what I am complaining about, the NEXTadventure House designed by Taylor Morrison and being rolled out in suburbs with walkscores of a big fat zero. It was the first house I ever saw with a "messy kitchen" - "this is insane. There is a six-burner range and a double oven in the kitchen and another big range and exhaust hood in the outdoor kitchen — but they know full well that everyone is hiding in the messy kitchen, nuking their dinner, pumping their Kuerig and toasting their Eggos."

This is not a house you will grow old in. It will probably kill you first. You have to drive everywhere, and when you're at home, that open kitchen will encourage you to nosh and that fancy beverage center with wine bar will encourage you to drink. When you go onto the patio, there is a TV to encourage you to sit and a fridge to supply you with pop or soda or whatever they call it in Florida.

When is it time to hang up the car keys?

Waiting for your kids to take them away is the wrong answer.

Senior in malmo
A senior cyclist in Malmo, Sweden. Lloyd Alter

Continuing the theme about losing the keys, I suggested that, "instead of waiting for the kids to take away the keys, maybe we older drivers should actively try to throw them away as fast as we can." I have been trying to walk and bike and use transit as much as possible, to stay as fit as I can; I am lucky to live in a streetcar suburb where I can get transit easily.

My hope is that the more I keep doing this, the longer I'll be able to keep doing this. This is obviously not for everyone; many older people have conditions that make it hard for them to walk or bike; my mom had a 30-year-old out-of-warranty artificial knee and every step was painful. But for the majority of aging boomers, I honestly believe that instead of waiting for someone to take away our car keys, we should be figuring out the alternatives about how to live without a car right now. Just throw away the keys. We will be healthier, wealthier, less stressed and will probably live a few years longer because of it.

Why I said goodbye to my Miata

After 22 years, the world has changed — and so have I.

My Miata. Please excuse the dirt and raccoon footprints. Lloyd Alter

I finally did it. Got rid of the car I hardly used anyway.

Having said goodbye to my Miata, I feel like I've thrown my own keys away; I'm done with city driving. I have my bike, my discounted transit card, and my walking shoes and can get anywhere I need to go. Often, I can get there as quickly as I could in a car.
I also have the example of my son, who has refused to even get a driver's license in the first place; he demonstrates that if you live in a city, you really can get by without one. Lots of millennials are doing this — living in the city, walking, biking, taking transit, strolling to brunch for their avocado toast.
All the cool kids are doing it, and we can, too.