Durable Growth

Urbanism and senior living – Part 1: Reviewing the issue

Venetian plaza

Venetian plaza

Early in the history of this blog, I wrote about some key steps on my path to becoming an urbanist.  One of those stories was about urbanism and senior living.  I’ve pulled up the story, dusted it off, and tidied up its syntax.  I offer it again below:

An urbanism insight came in 2007, during a visit to Italy.  One evening, I dined in a trattoria on the Piazza San Toma in Venice.  (Best gnocchi I’ve ever had.)  As I ate, an elderly gentleman entered.  He was in perhaps his late 70s, tall and fit.  His clothes showed wear, but were in good repair and nicely pressed.   He carried a richly decorated pottery bowl.

My Italian was almost non-existent, but I could understand that he wanted a double order of a favorite pasta to take back to his apartment to share with his wife, who was physically unable to join him at the trattoria.

The proprietor knew the gentleman and greeted him with warmth and enthusiasm.   Several friends dining in a rear room were advised of his presence.  They came forward to sit with him as he awaited his food.  The conversation, although beyond my ability to follow, was voluble and good-natured.

Even the son of the proprietor, who clearly wanted to be elsewhere on a warm spring evening, talked familiarly with the gentleman and smiled for the first time.

I respect the job that senior living facilities do in allowing senior citizens to end their days in safety and with companionship.  For many senior citizens, they’re a fine answer.

But when I’m the age of the Venetian gentlemen, I’ll want to visit my favorite restaurants and to chat with the friends gathered during my life.  It seems a richer way to end a life.  Those opportunities were still available to the Venetian gentleman.  During the twenty minutes he waited for his pasta, he was reminded by words and by actions that he was loved and respected in his old age.  And that respect came not from people hired to care for him, but from people he’d known for years.

When I ponder how to give similar opportunities to American senior citizens, urbanism is usually the answer.  Since that evening in Venice, I often measure urbanist proposals against the standard of that elderly gentleman.

Over the past ten days, I’ve been forced to take a renewed look at the reality of growing old in the U.S.  It hasn’t been pretty, especially when judged against that Venetian encounter.

Until days ago, my wife’s parents had lived in a 55-and-over apartment complex on a busy arterial.  It was a mostly acceptable solution, but lacked the richness of living within walking distance of a fine trattoria.  (Having a fast-food place over the side fence didn’t count.)  And it required my father-in-law to continue driving, even after his daughters expressed concern about his road skills, because a car was the only way to purchase food.

But eventually, the apartment situation, mostly because of health and medication needs, became untenable.  My wife and I dealt with the paperwork of getting them into a senior living facility and helping them pack up their home after 63 years of independent married life.  The new setting meets their needs and they’re happy with the change, but I think the Venetian gentleman would have been appalled by the limited options available to my in-laws.

Taking a break from working with my in-laws, I met with my mother to discuss her situation.  She would like to move from the now outsized family home into a setting more appropriate for her age and health.  She still gets around well, but finds the tasks of maintaining a suburban house and yard more than she wants to bear with my father gone.  Also, she sees the end of her driving days approaching.  Even more than my in-laws, a setting on a plaza with restaurants a short walk away would be great for her.  But there are few suitable options in her metropolitan area.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll return frequently to the subject of the senior-living possibilities of urbanism.  To help set the stage, I suggest this Atlantic Cities article, which reviews a movie about the downside of retiring to Florida, and the ruminations by Kaid Benfield in response to the Atlantic Cities article.  Both lay the groundwork for thinking about the American approach to old age.

Before closing, I should offer one clarification.  I won’t argue that we should facilitate urbanism because it offers good setting for senior life.  No, I come from a different perspective.  I think we should facilitate urbanism because there is an unmet market demand, because municipal balance sheets demand it, and because it is an appropriate response to the specter of climate change.

The fact that urbanism is also good for senior living is a bonus.  Also, I find that having multiple problems addressed by a single solution is a sign that the solution, in this case urbanism, is profoundly correct.

Scheduling Notes and Errata

There are a couple of meetings this week that may be interest readers:

On Monday night, September 23, the Petaluma City Council will hold a special session to discuss land use issues, several of which, such as mixed use and parking standards, pertain directly to urbanism.  The meeting will in the City Council Chambers at 11 English Street and will begin at 6:00pm.  I’ll be in attendance.  If we haven’t yet met, I look forward to making your acquaintance.

On Thursday night, September 26, a group will meet to discuss place-making in the Oakhill-Brewster neighborhood of Petaluma.  The meeting will be at the Aqus Café at 2nd and H Streets and will be begin at 5:30pm.  I also plan to attend this meeting.

Looking further ahead, the next meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat will be Tuesday, October 8.  We also meet at the Aqus Café and begin at 5:30pm.  The October meeting will include a presentation by Petaluma architect A. George Beeler on the Village Network, a collection of local organizations created to assist senior citizens with the tasks of daily life and home maintenance.

Also, in my last post I was wrong about the title of Richard Louv’s book about the authority that Americans are giving over to homeowners’ associations.  The correct title is “America II”.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

1 comment to Urbanism and senior living – Part 1: Reviewing the issue

  • I think part of the success or fiulare in such communities lies with the people who make the community. If a town is walkable then it will draw people who are interesting in living in a walkable town. However, if the town is too drivable then it may attract that segment of society that couldn’t care less about walking anywhere.The crux comes in that I think there are many more driving people then walking people. If the town never gets the critical mass of walking people, then it won’t be the walking success that the planners are hoping for.