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Why We Need to Get Boomers to Move to the Cities

If boomer retirees keep flooding suburbs, the cost of providing for them soars. Here's how we could get them to cities instead.

Photo Credit: j bary via Flickr


This story originally appeared at Salon.

Retirees get blamed for all sorts of problems: sucking up too much Social Security, adding to the healthcare crisis, writing out checks at the supermarket.

Just as critical, however, is the fact that the baby boomers, retiring at a clip of 10,000 a day, are hunkering down way out in the suburbs — and sometimes much farther afield.

“You’ve got this whole generation that moved to the suburbs thanks to government subsidies,” says  Howard Gleckman, author of “Caring for Our Parents” and a fellow at the Urban Institute. “They got tax breaks for moving there and now they’re staying.” Even city-dwelling boomers —  up to 65 percentof them — head for the land of the lawns once the kids move out.

As they have every right to. But a census-busting generation growing unprecedentedly old while scattered so wide will make caring for aging boomers vastly more complicated. Yet rather than incentivize the next generation of seniors to move to urban areas — where transit, services and walkable neighborhoods abound — an array of factors actually discourage them from doing so. How do we fix this?

There are two sides to the problem: one is policy, and the other is urban planning itself. On the planning side, there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit, says David Lee, a Ph.D. candidate in urban planning at MIT. For instance, a big issue for seniors is range — how far they can comfortably get from their homes. In cities, that often boils down to where’s the next bench, and where’s the next bathroom? So when San Francisco  tears out its public seating to keep the homeless from sitting down (a dubious policy anyway), it inadvertently creates an environment hostile to older people. Even just removing the metal spikes from low concrete walls — otherwise known as a loitering-teenager repellent — can make a big difference for old people. So can encouraging businesses to be flexible on their “restrooms are for customers only” rules.

“If you can use this kind of existing infrastructure to benefit seniors,” says Gleckman, then the city essentially begins to function like a giant assisted-living center. He points to the untapped potential of apartment buildings. “You could organize a building where younger couples might say, ‘We’ll shop for an older person if they’ll water our plants or sit for the kids.” After the tsunami in Japan, municipal governments facilitated such arrangements — some even built  nagaya, traditional intergenerational tenements, so younger neighbors could help care for displaced seniors. It’s akin to co-housing, says Gleckman, “where people move into one building and provide services to each other.” A building full of seniors could even hire a single home health aide who sees them all in one visit.

This sort of urban collaborative thinking could extend to transit. Take  “dollar vans,” those semi-legal armadas of jitneys that pick up anyone who flags them down. If more regulation made them feel safer, such an option could be a boon for seniors who can’t lug a cartful of grocery bags to the nearest bus stop but also can’t splurge on a taxi.

These low-tech fixes, however, only get us so far. “Almost every study finds that the elderly are most sensitive to cost of living and crime,” says Karen Smith Conway, an economics professor at the University of New Hampshire. These days, cost of living is likely to be the bigger issue, as fixed-income seniors are particularly vulnerable to urban real estate’s ups and downs.

Gentrification poses problems for seniors most of us would never even think of. It can wipe out the familiar visual cues dementia sufferers use to avoid getting lost. And trendy new bars don’t do much for an octogenarian. USA Today recently wrote about the  disappearing neighborhood tavern, a cornerstone of urban senior social life. Where David Lee worked in Brookline, Mass., a McDonald’s had become the de facto neighborhood senior center. “It was the perfect place for seniors in the daytime,” Lee says: brightly lit, cheap coffee, and you could sit there as long as you wanted. But as the neighborhood upscaled, “it was replaced with something more high-end,” and an informal community group of seniors was dispersed overnight.

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