Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


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

Pondering which environment is friendlier for the coming “silver tsunami.”

Minneapolis has seen a revival of some of its downtown neighborhoods

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.

Article continues after advertisement

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.

Article continues after advertisement

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.