Want an Age-Friendly Place to Live? Move to the Big City

Older people love farmers markets like Union Square in New York. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

People in their 70s and 80s are the fastest-growing segment of the population, and despite all of the promotion of retirement communities in the Sunbelt, a new study from Welltower shows that most older people (and 80 percent of baby boomers) who live in cities want to stay where they are. The main reason appears to be access to good health care in the long term, but after that, the most important criteria relate to relationships — "they want to gather with friends, family and grandchildren. And finally, it’s the variety of urban scenic areas and walkways, other outdoor recreation, cultural experiences, shopping and restaurants that cities have to offer."

needs as one ages
The older you get, the more health care matters. (Photo: Welltower)

We have written about this before, but it's interesting to find the data from this survey backing it up. It turns out that city dwellers are like everyone else; they want to stay where they live, but it's actually easier to do that in the city than it is in the suburbs. According to the study:

Baby Boomers are the most committed to staying in the city, with 8 out of 10 (78%) saying they want to stay in their current home, neighborhood or city as they age. This is meaningful considering that the oldest Baby Boomers recently turned 70 and are closer to having to make decisions about their 80+ years.
Top priorities for city dwellers
Things to do to stay healthy. (Photo: Welltower study)

This is how you live healthy. (Image from Welltower study)

It's also interesting that among those who live in the city, healthy living is a serious priority. These things are harder if you cannot drive or you have to go long distances to get to a gym. And loss of mobility is a huge concern — bigger than worries about everything in the city but crime.

What many residents want

Washington square
Older people love access to parks like Washington Square in New York. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

John Feather of Meeting of the Minds points out that what older people want, according to the study, is not that different from what young people are attracted to:

... good walkability, transit, and mobility; affordable, accessible housing; employment and volunteer opportunities at every age; well-coordinated health and social services; and more inclusion and intergenerational connection. You’ve probably noticed that this could just as easily define a Millennial’s wish list for the perfect place to live.

In fact, Feather is on to something. It isn't just young people. All those things that older people want and need are important for mothers with babies in strollers (access to to clean washrooms, decent sidewalks) and people with mobility challenges. Everyone who doesn't drive basically needs these things. These are the attributes of good cities.

But they are not the attributes of most North American cities, where suburban, car-owning voters control elections. Instead, older people and children get killed by cars by the thousands, and doing anything about it — like slowing down cars or extending walking times at lights — is considered "inconvenient" by some planners. Cities don't cater to the very young or the old because the bulk of the voters are neither. In a recent post, I shared that I was worried an "unqualified orange-haired populist" might win where I live in Ontario because he promised to lower gasoline prices, eliminate carbon taxes and lower electrical bills — and he did, in big way. A smart commentator noted on CBC that two thirds of Ontarians live in suburbs and drive cars, and that's what they wanted.

But demographics are changing fast as the population ages and the millennial generation starts having kids in serious numbers.

Feather notes that there's a real advantage to creating age-friendly cities, because aging boomers often have a lot of money to spend and are "relieving traffic and maximizing business efficiency by shopping, dining, driving, parking, and using public transportation at different times than office workers or young families."

In fact, young families and aging boomers often share schedules, getting up early and dining out early. And with more people working from home, the traditional 9 to 5 schedule no longer applies. It turns out that all those things that make a city appealing and comfortable for older people make the city better for everyone who isn't just driving through.