[Guest blogger Alan DeLaTorre is a PhD candidate at Portland State University who studies urban planning and aging.]

Aging AmericaIn 2011, the first Boomer will turn 65, an occasion that will herald an epochal demographic shift.  Just as babies boomed in the 1940s through 1960s, older adults will become North America’s—and much of the rest of the world’s—fastest-growing demographic. This imminent population shift is beginning to force a long-overdue conversation about the unique housing, environmental, and health care needs of an aging population.

Unfortunately, it’s a conversation that many of us are ill-prepared to undertake. A recent AARP study, for example, found a massive disconnect between perceptions of aging and its reality. The vast majority of people surveyed expressed optimism that they would not only be in good physical health in their later years, but that they would always be able to drive.

Can you say, “denial”?

These issues came to life for me several years ago, when my father, a California school teacher, started looking for his future retirement home in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  His criteria for the move, “I want to get away from the crowded [city] and find a place that is less hectic…somewhere I can grow things.”  At the time, I was co-teaching a class on housing and environments for older adults at Portland State University’s Institute on Aging. Every ounce of my professional training told me that his moving away from important services could become an issue for both of us. I also knew my father well: he had never grown anything in his life. So I suggested, as gently as I could, that he might want to reconsider moving away from services he’d need.

He didn’t buy it. 

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  • My father simply couldn’t fathom the changes that age would bring to his abilities or his faculties. Even though he has never wanted to burden anyone, it was tough for him to envision the kind of decline that would lead to needing help with driving, shopping—or growing things. 

    After several weeks, I shifted approaches, arguing that he needed to take his daughter (my sister) into consideration when choosing a home. She had sustained a traumatic brain injury in an automobile accident about ten years earlier. Almost immediately, his paternal instinct kicked in, and he started looking for a more accessible home that was close to important services.

    My father, like many others, had trouble facing the realities that accompany normal aging, not to mention the changes that might accompany a serious illness. Yet he was fully capable of making wise decisions when it pertained to someone else.

    Eventually we found a house across the street from a hospital, a half mile from a future light rail stop, with a ramp over the three stairs leading to the front door, and with plenty of room on the property to add additional square footage or an accessory dwelling unit if my sister, our family, or his friends wanted to join him in Portland.  He is still a few years from retiring and moving to the Northwest, but the experience served as an important lesson about planning for the future—and a great example for the class I was teaching.

    Unfortunately, not everyone has learned those lessons—and the vital window of opportunity for planning for a rapidly aging population is closing. To help prepare, here are three things we can all start thinking about.  

    First, accept that you are aging. Denying the changes that occur with normal aging will make it more difficult to plan for your future needs. If you know that you may not be able to drive forever, you’ll have a reason to learn your way around your town’s transit system, and to choose housing that is close to necessary services. If you are looking for housing where you would like to remain (e.g., especially if you’re aged 50-70), why not try examining properties with a wheelchair or walker in mind?

    Second, developers, planners, and homebuyers can break away from the “Peter Pan” style of development, which assumes we’ll never grow old. Housing that works for the elderly can work for other age groups too: a home that accommodates a walker or wheelchair will also serve mothers pushing strollers and able-bodied younger people. “Visitable/visit-able” housing design can and should be incorporated into as much new and redeveloped housing as possible.  Simple features like wide doorways and hallways, at least one zero-step entrance, and an accessible bathroom on the bottom floor will begin to create housing that many people can age in and will also allow for hosting friends, families, and neighbors who are aged and/or disabled.  

    Finally, we can foster innovation in housing design and development. Concepts such as co-housing and the Green House model merit further exploration; these opportunities need to be expanded to be available to those with limited and fixed incomes.  Cultivating community and facilitating environments that tap into the assets of older adults (rather than solely focusing on needs) will help create a society that supports the wisdom and worth of our older population.