What is the definition of “home”? Well, in most dictionaries home is where you live at a particular time, a dwelling, an environment offering affection, safety and security, a haven. But it also goes beyond the confines of four walls and a roof over our heads. Home is also used in a broader sense relating to or being where one lives or where one’s roots are; as in “my home town,” a place where something began and flourished and even possibly the country or state or city where you live. So when we talk about Aging-in-Place, eventually we need to also address the importance and impacts of the built environments beyond our houses. We need to evaluate if our neighborhoods and communities will enable successful aging and livability; You see, “our homes” contribute to the basis of our individual and common identities. They hold our memories and they give us a sense of place.
The year 2011 is seen by many as the beginning of the “Changing Face of Aging” in America. It is when the first wave of baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) will start to turn 65; that is less than 2 years from now! How well will our communities as they are currently configured deal with this paradigm shift based on age? Their ability to adapt to the changing needs of an aging nation should factor into every planning decision that the community is considering. How projects, developments and urban planning might impact older active adults can no longer be an afterthought if our communities are to retain their appeal and remain not only habitable but also profitable in every meaning of the word.
AARP has done extensive research on the baby boomers in recent years and has found that “Boomers” are:
- More ethnically diverse than prior generations.
- Tend to be more highly educated than prior generations.
- Do not plan to retire in the traditional sense.
- Plan to continue to work during their “retirement years.”
- Live in the same State…a state of denial!
- Wanting to remain in their own homes as they age or as long as possible.
In fact when asked where they want to live as they age, 90 percent of Boomers say, “in my home.” They do not want to live with relatives, in a nursing home, or at an assisted care facility. They want to live at home independently and without loss of comfort, security and the freedom to continue to engage in community life.
But given the nature and configuration of most communities across the United States, can Boomers realize those expectations?
Unfortunately most of the country, if not the world, is likely to find itself unprepared for the coming tidal wave of Boomers known as the Silver Tsunami. As we look ahead, we find that the 65+ population is projected to grow faster than the population at-large in all 50 states, with some states finding themselves in the challenging situation of having more Medicare-eligible seniors than school-age children. It is expected too that this population will double over the next 30 years, to over 70 million; a third of America’s current population!
As you can imagine, these age-based population changes will come with many challenges including how to make our communities more “livable.”
Often people, local governments and even States don’t think about this until they suddenly find themselves trapped in towns with poor public transportation and not enough medical services. Simple services like grocery or drug stores, may become too hard to reach without the help of a neighbor or friend – especially as seniors give up their driver’s licenses for safety reasons. Even walking, if there are no sidewalks, become a major challenge. Without addressing some of these basics we risk ending up with an aging population prone to isolation, social disconnect and despair.
What are Livable Communities?
In AARP’s study, A Report to the Nation on Livable Communities: Creating Environments for Successful Aging, livable communities are defined as those with “affordable and appropriate housing, supportive community features and services, and adequate mobility options, which together facilitate personal independence and the engagement of residents in civic and social life.”
Livability under those parameters means asking questions such as, does your home town have one-story dwellings? Or are most homes built to accommodate the raising of families? Is there a Visit-ability initiative in place that encourages or insists on no-step entries, sidewalks you can actually walk on, bus stops with benches and overhead shading or shelters, libraries and parks that are easily if not even universally accessible and much more. Most communities these days find themselves blindsided by the changing needs based on aging and playing catch up or even in some cases don’t even realize what’s hit or about to hit them until it’s too late!
We’re all responsible, as individuals, members of local government, city planners, or simply as voters to think about these issues in the days to come so that we can not only safeguard ourselves but also to increase our chances to age well in the future by making the right decisions now.
Livability is not just an aging and elderly issue. Striving and insisting on nothing short of livable communities is not an impossible goal and in fact in many ways is the right thing to do to continue to empower people as they age and to prolong their quality of life. Such communities make life more comfortable and convenient for active and able citizens regardless of age as well as those with disabilities.
Yet in order to meet theses most obvious of things we will need a wholesale overhaul in the way we think about our homes and our built environments. After all, embracing the principles of livable communities honors those core foundations of American life: dignity, equality, independence, and the freedom and right to choose….and we will need to start doing so now!
About the Author: Raad Ghantous is the principal of Raad Ghantous & Associates and is an expert in luxury hospitality, wellness centers, and medical & day spa developments. He is also the owner of Your Home For A Lifetime, an A.D.A/ Barrier-free/ Universal design/Aging in place, full service design/build firm with over 15 years of experience specializing in developing integrating elegant and seamless designs/modifications to new or existing structures