These ties and the ways they’re manifesting themselves will undoubtedly reshuffle expectations for what American communities look like and how they function. For aging boomers and those who have already retired, the community they choose to grow older in “is not just a way station, it’s something they are committed to,” Kotkin says. The implications could be profound. Graying populations will change political equations in suburbs where catering to younger families was once the only calculus that mattered, and they will also strengthen these communities’ social networks simply by virtue of their commitment to family and local institutions.
Prince William lies at the transition between metropolitan Washington’s expanding Northern Virginia suburbs and still-rural counties. Other than having a Civil War battlefield at its heart—in Manassas—it is typical of once-sleepy exurban counties that have swelled with boomers and their families. Prince William’s growth has been explosive. In 1960, it had just over 50,000 residents; in 2008, its population was 364,734. These days, Sudley Road in Manassas—along which federal troops marched almost 150 years ago—is a string of shopping plazas, while huge stretches of rolling landscape have been given over to subdivisions.
When Ann Bulk first arrived—her husband at the time had a job in Washington—the roads were lined with woods, cropland, and horse and dairy farms. The subdivision she now lives in was farmland. “I remember seeing the banner for [the development] when it went up, never thinking I’d end up living here,” she says. But after a divorce and with limited income, she and Vanessa left the family home and moved to their townhouse.
She’s not inclined to pull up stakes now. Young when her parents divorced, she had to leave her own childhood home. “I’m sentimental, because Vanessa was born and raised here and I felt like I didn’t have roots early in life,” she says.
Last year her mother, Mary Davis, left Florida and joined Prince William’s rapidly growing cohort over 80. Unable to climb the stairs in Bulk’s house, she slept on the couch in the living room; while Bulk worked, Vanessa cooked for the three of them. In time, though, caring for Davis became too much for Bulk and Vanessa to handle. Seeking advice on an online greyhound fanciers’ discussion list, Bulk learned of Prince William’s Area Agency on Aging; a call brought a social worker, who helped her find an assisted living facility.
This is all part of a noticeable trend: older parents moving to Prince William because their children moved them there, says Courtney Tierney, the agency director. She says almost any such director in the country “would say the same thing: Boomers are finding that they need to be closer to their parents, and in order to do that, if the boomer is working, the parent needs to go to the boomer.”
For suburbs built up largely with the needs of younger families in mind—Prince William’s median age is a relatively young 33, compared to 37 for the nation—the challenges presented by people choosing to age in place or to move close to their grown children are only starting to be felt. “At the moment, the boomer generation are people a lot of communities would like to have,” Frey says. “By and large they make fewer demands on our communities than contributions through their resources, and buying power and so on. But 10 years from now that’ll be different: Those same people will be there, but will need more medical care and social services.”
Transportation, of course, will be an enormously challenging issue in suburban communities designed around the car. But so will providing adult day care, affordable housecleaning and other services that will allow people to remain at home. It’s not hard to imagine conflicts developing over public resources, especially in places where schools and other services for younger families have traditionally drawn so heavily from public budgets.