Durable Growth

Urbanism and senior life: Sketching out the downtown options

Walkable setting in Paris

Walkable setting in Paris

In previous posts, I’ve written that many current options for senior life, specifically the common American model of large facilities in non-walkable settings and an observed Venetian arrangement that may have lacked adequate social contact, may not be meeting the needs of seniors.  I then suggested that urbanism, even if imperfectly applied in the Venetian example, offers good opportunities for fulfilling and contented senior years.   (I also wrote that many seniors are trapped in suburbiaby market forces, but that’s a thread that I won’t continue until later posts.)

So the question for today is if we want to provide more opportunities for seniors to live in urban places, what should the housing options be?

(Several responses to earlier posts highlighted the specific need for affordable senior housing.  I understand and appreciate the perspective, but note that there are also few urban options for more affluent seniors.  I agree that any new development should include affordable elements, but the challenge should be urban options for everyone, including all seniors.  Also, I’ll note that a city with a strong urbanist focus and a tax structure in which the municipal costs are allocated fairly may have less need to create affordable housing.)

In some ways, the question above about senior living options isn’t well-framed.  Seniors aren’t a species apart.  There’s not one type of urban housing that fits the needs of all seniors any more than there is one type of housing that fits the needs of all middle-aged folks.  But we can talk about a range of options, including the points on which the housing needs of seniors may differ from others.

For many seniors, the preferred residential option is little different from that of younger people.  For seniors who are healthy and capable of self-care and daily tasks, a comfortable and appropriately-priced apartment or condominium in an urban setting can be a fine choice.

Although not specifically targeted toward seniors, it’s comforting to think of seniors finding a home in the redevelopment of the oldest American mall, in Providence, Rhode Island.  The paring of my library would be wrenching, but otherwise my wife and I could likely enjoy life in a 900-square-foot apartment in a historic building.

Perhaps the only difference between the needs of seniors and of younger folks is the needed proximity of key retail outlets.  Seniors are more likely to have given up driving or to have timidity behind the wheel, so having a grocery store and pharmacy within easy walking distance can be important.  (As positive as Theatre Square has been for Petaluma, the nearest grocery store, unless one counts 7-11, is four blocks away and a pharmacy can only be reached by car or transit, so downtown Petaluma isn’t yet senior-ready.)

Other seniors, as age begins to take a toll, may need a stronger support system.  Urban residential buildings limited to age-55 and older, with a site manager tasked with daily checks on the residents, could meet the need.  But I’m more intrigued with a concept called “naturally-occurring retirement communities” or NORCs.

A group of seniors with like interests could find each other and gradually establish a pattern of daily contact, perhaps breakfast in an urban diner or a mid-afternoon beverage in an urban pub.  When a member of the group fails to appear, someone knocks on a front door as a check.  And if a member needs assistance for medical reasons, the others participate in the support.

It’s true that NORCs can also occur in suburban settings, but the lesser density of seniors makes it harder to find a community of common interest.  Also, many of the meeting places where NORCs coalesce aren’t available on foot in suburban settings and the required use of a car disqualifies many seniors from participation.  NORCs are best suited to urban settings.

Progressing into the later years, many seniors will eventually need assisted living or transitional care, a use that is typically sited in American communities far away from urban settings.  But, other than land cost, there is little reason why assisted living facilities can’t be located in urban places.

But perhaps they needn’t be located right in the heart of an urban core.  I have a 92-year-old aunt living in a transitional care facility in the East Bay, less than a block from an urban arterial.  When first advised of the location, I was the thrilled by the proximity to urban activity.  But what I soon learned was that few residents would walk the short distance to the arterial, fearful of falling amidst the jostling pedestrians and of urban crime.  For my aunt, a small grocery store across the street from the senior facility, but not on the arterial, is the most important amenity.

Also, when my uncle was still alive, he and my aunt would often walk through the dense, varied, and architecturally-interesting residential neighborhood spreading outward from the arterial.  In particular, my uncle enjoyed tidying up the sidewalk as he walked, using his cane to bump cigarette butts into the foliage where they could decompose unseen.  The gentle, pun-loving man would take pride in his cleanup duties, saying it proved that he could still “kick butt” in his 90s.

It was a story that wouldn’t have occurred in most American senior facilities, either because there are few places to walk outside the front doors or because the surrounding neighborhoods are too sterile to entice walking.

We can find ways to provide senior living in urban settings.  With only a few tweaks, it isn’t much different than providing residential opportunities for all of us in urban settings.  Of course, we’ve only begun to tackle that deficiency.

In my next post, I’ll offer a few insights about incentivizing urban residential growth, with a particular eye on senior living.  After that, I’ll change over to the question of bringing a few urban amenities to the seniors stuck in suburbia.

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.

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