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Staying Connected

Every so often, Ann Bulk thinks about retiring to some bucolic spot in the Carolinas where her pet greyhounds would have room to run. But then she looks around her modest, two-story townhouse in a Prince William County, Va., subdivision, 25 miles west of Washington and reconsiders. “This is home to me,” she says. “It’s what I’m familiar with.”

At 58, Bulk isn’t really close to retiring. She supports herself on her salary as the human re­sources manager at a Sears store, supplemented by a modest income from making and selling jackets and raincoats for greyhounds. Her daughter, Vanessa, 26, is living with her while looking for work. And Bulk has her own 84-year-old mother, now in an assisted living facility nearby, to think about as well. “I’ve got a sense of roots here,” says Bulk, who moved to the area when she was 23. “I figure I lived here, I’ll die here.”

She’ll have company. It has been 50 years since the country’s first age-segregated retirement community—Sun City, outside Phoenix, Ariz.—opened its doors and stamped its leisure-filled and cloistered vision of growing older on the national psyche. Sun City and its many imitators are still going strong, but when the results of the 2010 U.S. Census begin filtering out in December, the numbers will show a 50-plus America that looks a lot more like Ann Bulk: many members in multi­generational suburbs that not so long ago were considered preserves for young families; many with grown children living nearby or even at home; and huge numbers of people approaching or past the end of their working lives who are choosing to stay put, rather than light out for golfing territory.

This trend to “age in place” isn’t new. Despite the Sun City stereotype, people over 50 have always been less likely to migrate than people in their 20s and 30s. But the census will show that the number of older Americans and the median age of the nation have ballooned. The extraordinary number of boomers, whose first members turn 65 next year, means they will be far more noticeable in the places they age than their predecessors. And they will be aging in every corner of the country. The fastest growth in the 55- to 64-year-old cohort during the past decade occurred in Western states like Oregon, Arizona and Idaho, and in New England. Even the state with that group’s slowest projected growth, New York, saw a 33 percent rise, according to William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer who has studied the boomer and World War II generations.

“You used to think of places that attracted seniors as specialized retirement communities” like Sun City, Frey says. “Now, in effect, most of America will be a ‘retirement’ community.”

Eight of the 10 counties with the fastest-growing populations of people age 55 and over between 2000 and 2008 were suburban. A trip to Prince William (10th among fast-growing 65-plus populations) offers a glimpse of what’s to come. And it suggests that older Americans value connection at least as highly as such leisure-time amenities as good restaurants and golf courses. The connection might be to family, to locale, to a community of friends and acquaintances, or to all three. But the trend is clear: Boomers, their elders and their children can be considered, as a whole, “the attachment generations.”

You could see this in a report from the Pew Research Center that found the lowest rate of adults changing residences between 2007 and 2008 since the government began tracking this trend in the late 1940s. Three-quarters of people who chose not to move cited family as the reason. Joel Kotkin, a social thinker and writer whose new book, The Next Hundred Million, looks at the demographic trends that will affect America in 2050, finds this “settledness” to be especially marked among boomers, who are staying “tethered to their suburban homes—close to family, friends, clubs, churches and familiar surroundings,” he wrote in Newsweek recently.

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.

Yet as 65-plus populations grow, it seems likely they’ll be listened to more carefully by political leaders. Last year, for instance, Prince William trimmed its budget by canceling bus service to its two senior centers. Angry patrons complained to the board of supervisors about isolation. In politically conservative Prince William, you might have expected such a demand for services to fall on deaf ears. But the board reversed course.

“We don’t have a lot in the way of transit inside the community,” says Corey Stewart, a Republican who chairs the board. “That’s something we’re struggling with. We restored the bus service, but it’s not enough, and we’ll have to beef that up.”

It is also possible to find hope in the strength of the ties binding older residents to their communities. Schools in small towns, central cities and suburbs often rely on older volunteers. So do churches and synagogues, social-service organizations, free health clinics, and the like. Wherever they live, says Kotkin, people age 50-plus “are a critical part of the civic community.”

In particular, he argues, they help to anchor what he calls “the new localism.” Its basic premise, he wrote, is that “the longer people stay in their homes and communities, the more they identify with those places, and the greater their commitment to helping local businesses and institutions thrive, even in a downturn.”

In other words, age 50-plus Americans want to be attached to the places they live and the people they live near. Inevitably, Kotkin says, older people, regardless of why they live in a particular place, will embrace this new “localism” to improve the places they live.

Indeed, at the Manassas senior center, the determination of many older residents to contribute to Prince William itself is unmistakable. Sixty-four-year-old Marianne Nigreville, for instance, volunteers at the front desk, teaches first-grade Sunday school and works as an assistant in two different public schools. Carol Vencill, 66, teaches dance and helps run an energetic tap-dancing troupe made up of women who, a few years ago, couldn’t imagine performing in public. John Rodriguez, 66, a former Marine drill instructor, teaches tai chi to people looking for more contemplative exercise.

These impulses to do good, crucial wherever Americans are aging, will be especially noticeable in suburban communities like Prince William. “Brand-new suburbs with only chain stores, and only people between ages X and X who are earning X dollars a year, they’re harsher places,” Kotkin says. “But what happens as those people age or their parents move into the neighborhood? It becomes a real place.”

Not only will those older residents be natural constituents for creating a town center or making the community less car-dependent, Kotkin argues, but following their own instincts, they will knit these places together.

“They’ll be the foot soldiers and in some senses the generals of your civic institutions,” he says. “The seniors will civilize the suburbs.”

Rob Gurwitt lives in Norwich, Vt.

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