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What’s better for old people: city or suburb?

Minneapolis has seen a revival of some of its downtown neighborhoods

MinnPost file photo by Steve Berg

Minneapolis, along with other urban areas, has seen a revival of some of its downtown neighborhoods by an influx of affluent elderly.

Which environment is friendlier to the elderly: city or suburb?

That wasn’t the question directly addressed by “What’s Next? Boomer Generation Housing,” a recent seminar sponsored by the Urban Land Institute Minnesota, a group of public and private movers and shakers who work on community improvement strategies. But listening to researchers and policy-makers expound on issues facing the giant generation born between 1946 and 1964 had to make you wonder.

As you no doubt know already, the “silver tsunami” -- the ongoing surge of millions of baby boomers into the ranks of senior citizenry -- began last year when the first boomers celebrated their 65th birthday. For the next 20 years, another 10,000 will turn 65 every single day. By 2030, almost one of five Americans -- some 72 million people -- will be elderly, at least by conventional definition.

Happily, this group, among whom I number myself, can expect long life. Those who make it to age 65 will likely enjoy a lifespan of 84 years; those who hang on until age 75 should live to see 86.

This dramatic demographic shift raises all kinds of questions, particularly about the sustainability of Social Security and Medicare. But there’s another issue: Where will all of us geezers live?

Decline and death

If you’re 66 and in good health and have enough money, there’s no problem. You can pretty much go where you want. But every senior faces the inevitable and inescapable Double D: decline and death. The second of these is easy to deal with; you move into a trim box underground or a decorative urn that sits on your kid’s mantel.

But what about decline?

Even though we boomers are certain that we are more youthful at our age than were our parents (you’ve heard it -- 70 is the new 60; 60 is the new 39), it turns out that we are not as hale and hearty as we’d like to believe. A federally funded Health and Retirement study found that a group of 5,000 boomers born between 1948 and 1953 reported poorer health than those born between 1931 and 1941. Most elderly people have at least one serious chronic health condition, and, if current probabilities hold, one in eight will develop dementia.

Nonetheless, boomers are adamant that they do not want to live the way elderly people have in the past. That was the message from John McIlwain, senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C. “They think that they are different,” he said.

After all, they were groundbreakers who brought the world rock ‘n’ roll, civil rights and environmental movements, Vietnam War protest and technological revolution. They expect to pioneer in old age too, and what they want is definitely “not their father’s nursing home,” he said. (Of course, as I recall, their fathers didn’t want it either, at least my dad didn’t.)

In fact, boomers have agenda items that won’t work well in a nursing home or even in assisted living. “They feel that they are entering a second stage of adulthood,” said McIlwain, and they plan to live it to the fullest.

For many empty nesters, that new life involves eating out, going to the theater, physical activity and volunteering. According to an AARP survey, some 80 percent say they plan to work in retirement, at least part time, to increase their cash flow and to keep up their cognitive skills and social connections.

Getting out and about

Of course, you can do those things anywhere, but elderly people, especially those facing the challenge of physical decline, will probably find it easier to continue doing them in an urban setting.

Why? In suburbia, you have to drive. In a city, you can walk or take the bus or other public transit. At the very least, you can grab a taxi.

Some boomers have already voted with their feet, moving into cities or to suburban town centers. Minneapolis, along with other urban areas, has seen a revival of some of its downtown neighborhoods by an influx of affluent elderly.

But for the most part, boomers, some 84 percent, say that they want to “age in place.” A 2009 MetLife Foundation study found that 62 percent of people aged 55 and over say they plan to stay in suburbia. And, many of them have no choice. The collapse in housing prices during the Great Recession and an inability to sell -- or to sell at the price they need --  has kept them trapped in their large suburban manses.

But if they can’t drive, they will find living their ideal second life, or merely maintaining independence, challenging, to say the least. Without travel options, seniors face “isolation, a reduced quality of life and possible economic hardship,” declared “Aging in Place, Stuck without Options: Fixing the Mobility Crisis Threatening the Baby Boom Generation,” a 2011 report from Transportation for America, an advocacy group.

Studies show that people over age 65 who no longer drive make 15 percent fewer trips to the doctor, 59 percent fewer trips to shop or eat out and 65 percent fewer trips to socialize. Unable to get around, to buy groceries, make medical appointments, visit the bank and so on, boomers will, like it or not, be forced to move into that nursing home.

Access to transit varies widely. When the study examined the 13-county Twin Cities metro, it found that only 10 percent of in-town seniors aged 65 to 79 had poor access to public transit; by 2015, that would increase slightly to 11 percent. In suburban areas, however, boomers will live in a public transit desert. Some 69 percent in the Twin Cities metro won’t have any access, up from 64 percent currently. (The Twin Cities ranked 31st out of 47 cities with populations of one to three million, so not awful, but nothing to brag about either.)

Of course, public transit is hardly a panacea for the problems of the frail elderly. Trudging to a bus stop or train station, climbing up stairs and dealing with schedules and bad weather may simply be too demanding. And MetroMobility can't possibly handle the volume that the "silver tsunami" will produce.

So for many senior boomers, the availability of that bus or train may be the single most important factor in allowing them to live the good life -- or, given the realities of aging, the pretty good life.

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Comments (14)

I think it depends…

…on what one’s city or suburb happens to be like.

The most “urban” of the areas where I’ve lived – that is, the one with the best or easiest or most convenient access to transit, shopping, a grocery store, etc. , the amenities, in other words, that we usually connect with urban living, and often suggest as counterpoints to the aggravations of noise, crowding, crime, etc., that are often associated with city life – was in a suburb.

Specifically, it was an “inner ring” suburb of Denver that was itself a good-sized city in terms of population. I could catch a bus 100 yards from my condo, and get just about anywhere in metro Denver if I was willing to transfer enough times. Usually, I wasn’t interested in making all the necessary transfers, but it wasn’t crucial because most of what I needed in terms of goods and services was a 15-minute walk away. If I wanted to walk a another 5 minutes, I could catch an express bus that took me to the heart of downtown Denver in no more time than it would take me to drive, and a free shuttle traveled the length of the mile-long 16th Street Mall, thus getting me within a couple blocks of virtually every venue in Denver. That same walk would now take me to both a new hospital if I needed one, or two a light rail station that would take me downtown in about half the time of the express bus.

Second on my list in terms of urban amenities would be the small city of 60,000 or so, an hour outside of Denver, where I lived for 5 years. Transit was more or less nonexistent, but as long as my health held up, I could walk to most of the goods and services I needed, thus turning the daily exercise constitutional into a means of accomplishing many of the daily errands. Almost European, in other words. The same 15-minute time frame seemed to work there, as well.

The St. Louis suburb where I spent my first half century and more would be third on my list. Somewhat better transit, access to a full-service grocery store, multiple restaurants, many other goods and services, but some of them with less convenient convenient locations that sometimes would require transportation.

And the least convenient, least “urban” place I’ve lived in terms of amenities is this “forgotten quarter” in the northwest corner of Minneapolis. Analogous to northwest Arizona, which is separated from the rest of the state by the chasm of the Grand Canyon, the area north of the Humboldt rail yard and industrial area has plenty of bus transit, but to get to somewhere I want to go, transfers, and often multiple transfers, are necessary. Especially in the long winters here, I'm not willing to do that. My neighborhood has no retail activity at all beyond a print shop across the street from the industrial area, so to get the weekly grocery shopping done, or get a haircut, or a restaurant meal, or the doctor or the dentist, people in my neighborhood generally HAVE to get in the car and drive.

The site of the dead Brookdale Mall in the less-affluent suburb of Brooklyn Center is across highway 100, and will soon sport a brand-new, gigantic Super WalMart, which I expect will soon drive the Sears and Kohl’s stores remaining on the mall site out of business. I can walk to the WalMart in 15 minutes from my house, but my block is closer to the pedestrian trail across the highway than most, and WalMart is not my first choice when it comes to shopping. And, of course, the sales tax revenue goes to Brooklyn Center, not to Minneapolis.

So, I think blanket residential recommendations for seniors don’t necessarily fit everywhere. I can’t afford to live in most areas of Minneapolis, and, having tried condo living in that Denver suburb, I’d live in a condo again only under severe duress. Should I deteriorate to the point where I can no longer maintain my modest house and lot, and circumstances require multi-family living, I’d rather rent, and let someone else handle the maintenance, and at the same time not pretend that I “own” something (space) that I have to pay taxes and HOA fees for.

About those "short walks"

A genuine question that occurs to me: The "short walk" (of 5 or 15 minutes) doesn't seem like that big a deal - seems downright beneficial, in fact - except for one thing. What did you do when your trip involved hauling home a big load of groceries or some other kind of shopping "loot" that would be unwieldy to carry? Because at that point, even a 5 minute walk - particularly in bad Minnesota weather - could be a real obstacle.

As one who "lived it", what did you do in these times? Revert to taking your car? Pay more for a taxi? Swipe a shopping cart from the store (G!)?

Can't speak for all, but…

… if I was buying furniture or something like that, I had the store deliver (and sometimes that involves an extra charge. C'est la vie.).

As for groceries, when I live close to a store, I often shop several times a week, and as a result, the loads aren't that big. When they ARE "that big," yes, I take my car, and if it were the only option, I'd take a bus, streetcar, taxi, rickshaw, or whatever.

Weather does make a difference, however. Colorado has far more benign winters, on average, than Minnesota. Since I make a point of walking at least a couple miles every day when the weather permits it, Minnesota winters, at least "real" ones, make getting around on foot more of a challenge, or at least less comfortable, but I've "walked" errands here in January as well as in June – as long as it's above zero and/or below 100. And, if it's far enough away, I'll use the bus, the train, or my car, depending.

That said, however, it all depends upon one's health. I'm coming up on 70, and if the knees decide they've had enough, then I'll be looking for other options. If I lived downtown, there might be multiple choices – assuming I could afford to pay for delivery – but in my current Minneapolis neighborhood, if I can't walk, and can't drive, I'm up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

I might suggest that

I might suggest that purchasing a small cart goes a LONG way in hauling "loot." In my 30s, while living car-free, my CSA box was a consistent large, unwieldy thing I'd try to haul a 10 minute walk home. I used a little red wagon. I simply hadn't gotten around to getting a real cart, though.

Another option that hasn't yet been brought up -- bicycles. Or tricycles. In an urban neighborhood (like the forgotten northwest corner of Minneapolis), a bicycle/tricycle makes things a lot closer, and can easily be outfitted to haul lots of loot. And before claiming seniors can't bike, take a look at who is riding along the Greenway in south Minneapolis, hauling loot on bikes and trikes.

A welcoming world

The best place for seniors is, in reality, another reality. Seniors are marginalized as inconvenient in our fast paced, multi-tasking uber quest for satisfaction and financial bliss. The "assisted living" and nursing home route that awaits the "successful" senior,i.e. the senior with enough capital to cover the inflated costs of a "struggling" industry, is a pale relation to real living. Most important though, is it is convenient. So whereever seniors find themselves, city or suburb, there will be someone to take whatever they have left. If they don't have anything, then the reality is that this society has nothing for them.

You know you folks need to get out more

I understand that the conference was limited to the metro but really there are much more attractive options than just the seven counties and there are actually better options in the seven counties but not necessarily at the Core or in a suburb.

As Mr. Schoch pointed out he lived in a very nice 60,000 person suburb, and by that I mean a stand alone place that was near a metro. Contrary to popular belief the metro area does consist of some stand alone communities that while not independent of the core cities have their own identity. Some have hospitals, rural transit, and good care options for the elderly.

In addition to the metro area I would look at resort area retirement which has now made it easier to stay in that area with improved medical care and even expanded hospital facilities. That is a combination of still drivable communities even with diminished reaction time because the traffic is less and slower and the roads are more familiar.

People age in place because in addition to being the most cost effective solution they like to stay where in places they are familiar with, once you get to a certain point people flat out don't want to move.

Both my grandparents and my parents moved in the their 70's or 80's all to "senior housing" two to subsidized housing one to non subsidized and only one in the core city (if you can call "Nordeast" core - at that time I think it still had a pretty strong independent identity) and they loved it. They had/have peers to be active with, good transportation options and maintained a dignified lifestyle.

Affordable and or subsidized senior housing or pocket neighborhoods are great ways to go.

We romanticize cities

Ray's excellent post says a lot about how "it ain't necessarily so" that city living will be more convenient for aging boomers. My wife and I have talked it over, and our plan is to age in place here in Woodbury. We do drive, but our present location isn't as far removed from shopping and services as one might think. When I grew up in Mankato, we lived in the city proper - but had only a small ma & pa grocery store in the vicinity. Google Maps makes it easy to compare what we have today with the clouded memories of the good ol' days back in Mankato. Today a walk to a convenience store with as much stuff as our old ma & pa store had in inventory is just about the same distance, but we also have a major supermarket, restaurants, health club, pet salons and people salons and many other services within a mile. What is weak here is mass transit connecting us to the rest of the urban area - light rail should have been built 10 years ago, but the East Metro seems to be the poor boy who gets the hand-me-downs. (No, the bridge in Stillwater will do nothing to help.) I've also lived in Minneapolis, but found that walking didn't provide any more access to the basic goods and services one needs than a similar or shorter walk does here in Woodbury today. There are more eclectic destinations that are walkable in a city like Minneapolis, though - good luck walking to a serious entertainment venue here in the burbs, LOL! Woodbury does have an excellent system of paved trails that are accessible to people with disabilities and that connect neighborhoods without the need to drive.


This is not a question that can be answered with yes or no. It's complicated. My mother, who died recently at 97 and lived in a suburb, found her life increasingly circumscribed, although some was voluntary. Transportation was a problem, although there were nonprofit (I think) transit companies that helped, and she had a son and daughter who helped, along with other relatives. She was never in a nursing home except for short periods and was able to die at home,
I am now a "senior citizen" and live in the inner city of St. Paul. I love it here. I can walk to my co-op (a block away), and to restaurants, tailors, shoe repair shops, drugstores, cleaning stores, a hardware store, and my church. I live one block from a bus line, and 3 from another one; I'm within a mile of the freeway, but I am able to keep my driving to a minimum. I take daily walks with my dog, and this is pretty much a necessity, so I'm forced to keep walking. That's a good thing.
I can't imagine a better place for me than right here.

Taking responsiblity

In my view the "age in place" concept also means thinking these issues through and taking responsiblity for ourselves (not putting the tough decisions on children and other caregivers). My husband and I plan that by the time we are 65-70 we will choose a place to live that will help us realistically manage our needs as we get older; transporation is our top concern. We may not love it as much as our current location (or we may), but it will help us remain as independent as possible.

Urban Senior Housing

I find it baffling that there are no Senior housing options available on the skyway system in downtown Mpls or St. Paul. I would think that this would be ideal for everyone.

In St. Paul, seniors, even if they used wheelchairs, could have access to the Ordway, the Public Library, Xcel Center, the Science Musem etc., either to attend events or to volunteer. They would have access to dozens of restaurants, many of whom are dying for customers in the middle of the week. All without every having to go outdoors.

This would be a great reuse for some of the underutilized Class B office space downtown.

If you can drive into your 80s

you're going to do just fine in a city or a suburb, and after your mid-80's you're not going to be walking much anyway. By then if I'm so lucky, I expect to be living in some kind of senior housing with my wife, if she's lucky too.

Good posts, all…

As I said, it depends…

I moved to Colorado to get away from Midwestern humidity and climate, and when I lived in that city of 60,000, I purposely bought a very small (850 sq. ft.) house that I could easily maintain, had only one floor, and the step up from the ground level front porch into the living room was about 4 inches. I thought I was set for the rest of my days.

But many of the things I liked to do were only available in Denver, and the drive up and down I-25 there is equivalent to driving in and out of downtown Minneapolis on I-35 from 50 miles out. Unless it’s the middle of the day, the commute is brutal.

So I moved back to metro Denver after 5 years, and bought a condo. It was a mistake. All the disadvantages of both renting and owning (noisy neighbors on the other side of the wall, and I got to pay for my own water heater, furnace, etc.). Beyond that, however, it was not at ground level, and I was paying more than $150 a month in HOA fees to have low-wage employees butcher the shrubs and bury my car in snow when the cleared the parking lot in winter.

Still, the advantages of having stores, restaurants, services, hospital, light rail, etc., all within reasonable walking distance, seemed a fair trade for having to climb the stairs to my front door. I figured when the hospital opened and light rail started running, with other amenities already in place, I might still be set for the rest of my days.

But son and daughter-in-law wouldn’t move out there. When the grandchildren arrived, I had to move here if I wanted to be a real grandpa, and I do. So, all that careful consideration, including that of property values, often goes out the window when family takes you in a different direction. I like my neighborhood just fine, and the house, too, but as Ginny Martin says, “It’s complicated.”

If I had my druthers, and had to stay in Minnesota instead of going back to Colorado, I might well choose St. Cloud, which is very, very close to a duplicate of the small city I lived in for 5 years, at least in terms of population and geography. But St. Cloud is an hour and more away from the grandchildren, and for the next few years, it’s the grandchildren that will determine what I do or don’t do. Once they’re teenagers and have no visible interest in grandpa any more, maybe I’ll have options, but at that point, assuming I’m still alive, I’ll be pushing 80, so I won’t be surprised if the house and neighborhood I’m in now, with their lists of pluses and minuses, will be the ones where I “age in place.”

Marginalization & oldster care

Mr. Wallek is mostly correct about U.S. society having no use for older people, and the threshhold for "older" keeps being shoved down to younger and younger ages. (Try getting hired if you're over 50 -- or often, even 40.)

But I cannot agree with a suggestion that assisted living and nursing homes somehow are robbing the elderly. I'm familiar with a couple such operations, and the assisted-living/nursing home agency in which my mother lives is a nonprofit that attempts to provide its residents with more than rooms in which to sit and stare at the walls. Some kind of activity is scheduled for each day, often with a musician or other entertainer brought in to enliven or enrich the lives of the inmates, few if any of whom are there because they'd like to be.

Even without entertainment, a nursing home is a costly, labor-intensive operation. Many residents need assistance getting to and from dining rooms, getting dressed or even with basic hygiene such as bathing and using the toilet. (When you cannot walk or stand, you need help with almost everything.) Medications -- and these residents have a lot of them -- have to be allocated by RNs or LPNs and given under supervision. (Some are controlled substances, others aren't but the aide or LPN has to make sure the patent actually ingests the medication.) Many, perhaps most, assisted or nursing homes rely on immigrants from (at least nominally) English-speaking Third World nations to fill the low-wage, often disagreeable aide jobs. (How many of us would voluntarily take a job that can require providing and changing bedpans and wiping the patients after use -- or after an accident that also soils the sheets?) None of the homes I've seen has enough aides always to answer every patient's summons as promptly as the patient would like, and I've seldom seen the LPNs and RNs sitting still for more than a few minutes at a time -- if they sit at all.

Assisted living and nursing residences cost a lot, but there's a reason, and at least among the nonprofits, that reason seldom is overstaffing.

Importance of Driving as We Age

Aging in place in Carver County usually means continuing to drive, so keeping older drivers on the road longer and safer is important. An upcoming conference, Age Well – Drive Well: Promoting Older Driver Safety & Mobility in Carver County, will begin the discussion of what needs to be done to make the roads and older drivers safer in Carver County and beyond by encouraging non-traditional partnerships among those groups who have a stake in keeping older drivers on the road. The all-day conference will be held on Wednesday, June 27th at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. It is open to the public at no charge. For more information and to register go to the Carver County Public Health Website.