Durable Growth

Urbanism and senior living: The case for having urban options

Senior living facility in an Oregon mixed-use neighborhood

Senior living facility in an Oregon mixed-use neighborhood

They say that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite a time.  Slowly, steadily, methodically.  Having now written two posts on the overlap between urbanism and senior living, I suspect that my task is much like eating an elephant.  Describing the many aspects of urbanism versus senior life is a multi-faceted and complex undertaking.  And writing 800-word blog posts seems to be only nibbling around the edges.

Furthermore, I didn’t begin to consume the elephant in the best order and now find myself with the need to fill a logical gap.

I began the subject with a suggestion that neither the American approach of institutionalized eldercare, often in non-walkable settings, nor an anecdotal Venetian example of an older gentleman maintaining urban relationships but perhaps without adequate care or socialization seemed to be quite right.  I then continued with an explanation of how market forces are keeping seniors in their drivable suburban homes even when other options, such as urban settings, might better meet their needs.

But that omitted a logical step, the question of whether urban settings are appropriate for seniors.  Having questioned whether the Venetian example was a good model, it was a gap I should have filled.

So, today I’ll backtrack and try to make my case for living one’s later years in an urban setting.  With that missing piece addressed, I’ll then begin to tackle other questions such as how to bring more seniors into urban areas and how to remedy some of the deficiencies of senior life in drivable suburbia.  The slow and steady consumption of the elephant can continue.

Having written this blog for nearly three years, I know that a frequent response to urbanism is “But not everyone wants to live in dense urban areas!”  It’s a classic strawman response, implying that removing barriers to urban residential development will lead inevitably to everyone being marched downtown to reside in Soviet-style concrete boxes and then arguing against that falsely-assumed final result.  The argument is nonsense, but is repeated sufficiently often that I’ve dubbed it the Coercion Myth.

So let’s start there.  Living in urban settings wouldn’t be right for all seniors.  Those who live in a strong suburban family setting where they fill an essential element of family life, those who have a sufficiently robust transit connection that they can meet their daily needs from a suburban location, or those with medical conditions that preclude them from enjoying urban life won’t benefit from urban options.  And therefore no one is suggesting that all seniors must live downtown.

But that still leaves a lot of other folks for whom urban life can be a good fit.  And the predominant reasons are mobility and the possibilities that flow from mobility.  After a long life of enjoying the freedom that the American approach to land use conveys to those with a driver’s license, it can be quickly isolating to lose driving privileges.  Even if family members are willing to act as chauffeurs, it can be limiting to rely on someone else for the mobility that one has taken for granted for a half century or more.

There can also be mental health aspects.  Having the independence to walk to a hardware store for a screw to finish a household repair gives a sense of power which can lead to aging well.  And making new friends, whether over coffee in the morning or at a pub in the afternoon, can also be life-sustaining.

Andrew Price, writing in StrongTowns, makes the case well, noting the value of retained mobility and social connections for seniors.  (The argument that Price makes is slightly different from the argument that I’m making.  He argues that we should quit building places where seniors can become isolated.  I’m arguing that seniors who find themselves in isolating places should have the option of relocating to more sustaining urban locations.  But the arguments are two sides of the same coin.)

I often link other articles within this blog.  Most are optional as they only provide further facts behind an argument I’m making.  But some are so well-written that they truly deserve to be read.  Price’s article is one of the latter.  If your day permits, I encourage you to savor the arguments that he offers, including the tale of the parallel grandmothers.

Once again, urban life isn’t going to be the right fit for all seniors.  But it can be a fine solution for many.  In a world where many are clamoring for more urban life options, seniors can be added to the list, providing yet one more reason why we should quit making suburbia the default land-use paradigm.

With the missing logical step restored, we can now resume dining on the elephant in a logical order.  Next up will be a look at a range of urban senior housing solutions, including the argument that the apartment in which the Venetian gentleman lived might not be the best solution for all.  From there, we’ll look at how to bring touches of urbanism to seniors who are stuck in suburbia.  (The photo above is of a senior living facility within a mixed-use neighborhood in Oregon.)

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.

4 comments to Urbanism and senior living: The case for having urban options

  • ML

    It seems to me that this presupposes that seniors will stop driving long before they stop walking, and thus will be more likely to want walkable urbanism than 50 somethings. I’m not sure whether this is really the case- it certainly doesn’t fit with the personal experience of my older relatives and acquaintances.

  • Allure Nobell

    Interesting to come across this article today. This situation is much on my mind lately. I am 63 and completely functional, and recently moved from a rent controlled apartment in Oakland to purchasing my first home in East Richmond Heights. While it is beautiful and peaceful up here, I really miss being able to walk around to do shopping, go to the library, grab a cup of coffee at a cafe, or catch a bus somewhere if needed. I live alone and am concerned as to what I will do if I lose my ability to drive. I suppose I will have to move closer in to town, but by then the prices in the bay area will probably be unaffordable – arguably, they are now. The reason I moved to Richmond is that I was priced out of Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville, El Cerrito, and Albany. I would like to see some alternatives. I would like to see mixed age communities with individual apartments, independent living and managed care living for those who become unable to care for themselves, and also a social area for gatherings and events, and a community garden, among other things, close to public transportation and walkable destinations. There could be car and bike shares for those who want or need to drive.

  • […] Making the Case for Urban Living Options for Seniors (Vibrant Bay Area) […]

  • Thanks for the information! It’s good to know that the elderly can have options to live in an urban setting after they retire. My mother has been retired for a few years, and she’s already starting to show signs of dementia. I want her to be taken care of, but she still wants to live in her home. It seems like a good idea to hire an assisted living service so that she can live in her own home with someone looking after her to make sure that she’s taken care of.