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Imagining growing old in the suburbs

A group gathers in Shoreview and explores the challenges, which are daunting.

The world is becoming very, very old.

I’m not talking about the rock on which we perch — about 4.5 billion years old by some estimates — but about us, the people. In practically every country, the percentage of the population over age 65 has crept upward. And the future will bring more of the same. By 2030, some 20 percent of U.S. residents will have graduated into the state of being elderly, up from 13 percent in 2010.

Source: Metropolitan Council

Ever up-to-date, the Twin Cities is expected to mirror the trend with a near doubling of 65-plussers from about 11 percent currently to nearly 20 percent in 20 years.

We’ve already heard a lot about the financial burdens the increasing ranks of oldsters will place on society — for specialized housing, for Social Security, for Medicare and for those who need nursing home care and can’t afford it, Medicaid.

But few of us have thought much about how life in the cities and suburbs (where 84 percent of us hang out) might look after such a huge demographic shift. According to MIT AgeLab, an engineering think-tank, for example, walkers already outnumber strollers in some European countries. Well into senescence myself, I can foresee other changes: gangs of street-roving oldsters hassling teenagers; and movie theaters that won’t grant senior discounts.

a batch of citizens, from community leaders to sixth graders, they hoped to gene
MinnPost photo by Marlys Harris
A batch of citizens, from community leaders to sixth graders, gathered in Shoreview to generate ideas about what an aging population might mean for the city.

Reimagining this new landscape was the impetus behind an interesting workshop Thursday night sponsored by Shoreview, a community of about 25,000 north of Arden Hills, and Ecumen, a nonprofit nursing home and home care company — whose headquarters are in Shoreview. Gathering together a batch of citizens, from community leaders to sixth graders, they hoped to generate ideas about what an aging population might mean for Shoreview and how it — and other cities — could become more “age-friendly.” 

Global issue

The issue has gone global. In 2005, the World Health Organization launched an initiative to create more age-friendly cities and even created a guide complete with check-lists.

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There are two very solid reasons for putting that goal on the public agenda, says Gregor Rae, an Ecumen consultant and president of ActiveAge, an Aberdeen, Scotland, research group aiming to develop technology for the aged.

Creating an environment that will allow older people “to live a longer, more active life in their own homes relieves the burden on government,” he says, for nursing home and medical care. And older people can be a boon to the economy. “They control a tremendous amount of wealth,” he says.

The median net worth of households headed by someone 65 or older is now about $170,494 while that of younger families is a very sad $3,662, according to the Pew Research Center. Presumably, these wealthier households could spur the development of thousands of new businesses.

The setting for the workshop was Shoreview’s almost unbelievably lavish community center packed with citizens enjoying its immense fitness center, indoor playground and — yes! — tropical water park. Upstairs in a banquet hall, the 50 people who had shown up were chowing down on lasagna, salad and brownies. Stacey Becker, St. Paul’s former budget director, moderated. I sat at a table with three Shoreview-ites, Phyllis, 80, who worried that “one fall could change my life,” Paul, 45, who lamented that he had been fitted that very day with his first pair of bifocals, and Lesley, 45, a woman who worked on programs for the aged at the Shoreview center and described herself as a “caregiver.” When I revealed that I was a journalist, they were very understanding.

MinnPost photo by Marlys Harris
Clickers were used to automatically register
participants’ votes

Becker immediately challenged the group’s assumptions about Shoreview by asking a batch of questions to which people responded using clickers that automatically registered their votes.

Were there more kids of school age in Shoreview 10 years ago or now? Correct answer: 10 years ago, and most people got it wrong. Becker told us that by 2018, there would be more elderly people in Shoreview than schoolchildren.

Which town had an older population — Edina, Roseville, North Oaks or Shoreview? Most people were correct that Roseville was the oldest, but Becker brought forth a slide showing that Shoreview’s largest demographic group was aged 45 to 60, “a huge population that will be retiring,” she said. Other eye-openers: Shoreview had suffered a small decline in population in the last 10 years, many people were living in one-person households and a surprising number of  families had incomes lower than 150 percent of the poverty line (about $33,000 for a family of four).

Photos of old people

Next, each table received three photos of elderly people in community settings and was asked to identify the age-friendliest and explain why. Our group voted for a picture of two elderly ladies dressed in church-going finery sitting on a bench gossiping next to a young man — Paul described him as a “ne’er do well” — sleeping on a bench. Why? Because the ladies had a place to sit and seemed self-assured and secure even though their bench was partly occupied by a perceived bum.

Rejected was a picture showing an Asian or Amerind grandmother and grandchild, which said nothing special to us, and another of a line of seniors in a swimming pool wearing clown noses. They seemed to be having a good time, but none of us seemed to want a future that involved clown noses.

Favorites among the other groups: a scene of an old person, a teenager and a dog in what looked like a public library, which they interpreted as an intentional effort to get different age groups together in a pet-friendly atmosphere; an intergenerational exercise class; and a scene at a community fair showing a cop helping a baby in a stroller and his grandmother. It showed that people could feel secure in public settings.

Clearly, these folks, all of them appearing hale, healthy and in their right minds, had already absorbed the politically correct notion that intergenerational is good. But I wondered whether they, like me, get impatient with elderly people who drive 35 in a 55 mile zone, jam up supermarket cashier lines by writing checks for $1.98, talk loudly in movie theaters and think that Medicare is not a government program. 

For the most challenging exercise of the evening, Becker asked each table to draw a blob in the middle of a giant piece of paper and label it “More seniors.” We were then supposed to create offshoots that would describe the consequences. My table mentioned more people living on fixed incomes, leading to a lower tolerance for property taxes, leading inevitably to a downgrading of roads and public facilities, and, I guess, future slumdom for Shoreview. Other concerns: more people unable to drive would become disconnected from the community at large; a frailer populace in need of more health care, services and volunteer help; age-segregated housing. On the plus side, our table listed “wisdom” and “loyalty to the community.”

When Becker asked each of the tables to choose the most important effects of a town composed of more elderly people, two big issues emerged: a lack of public transportation — in a car-dominated suburb, those who couldn’t drive had trouble shopping, making doctor visits and so on — and the inability of many elderly to deal with the upkeep of their homes. (In what I thought was a shameless bid for free services, several elderly attendees suggested that sixth graders volunteer to rake their leaves and shovel their snow.)

Kids raise questions

The sixth graders themselves raised one of the most pressing issues: “More adults would be caring for their parents, which means that fewer adults would be working, which would mean less money for families and more stress,” said one astute kid.

Another group mentioned “infrastructure needs” for more sidewalks, centralized shopping, lower curbs and more curb cuts, stop lights that lasted long enough to allow old people to cross the street and more benches in public areas and in stores. Still others mentioned the importance of providing more activities for the elderly, although Shoreview Mayor Sandy Martin made a more cogent point to my mind: “The elderly want meaningful work,” she said.

At the end of the evening, the group voted to set as a goal making Shoreview an age-friendly place. And some filled out sign-up sheets for the next meeting. Despite the good will, however, the challenges are pretty daunting. We’ve organized our cities and suburbs to accommodate children and able-bodied adults. Shifting to a new model won’t be easy.