American communities are on the precipice of enormous change, but it isn't a change that should catch anyone by surprise.
We are all, of course, aging. And right now, approximately 45 million Americans are age 65 or older. By 2030, that number will reach 73 million Americans. At that point, fully one in five Americans will be older than 65. The growth is particularly pronounced in states including Maine, Florida, Montana and New Mexico, where 25 percent or more of the population in 2030 will be 65 years old or older.
But the real moment of change will take place just a few years later. By 2035, the United States will — for the first time ever — be a country comprised of more older adults than of children. The U.S. Census Bureau projects there will be 78 million people age 65 and over compared to 76.4 million under the age of 18.
Knowing this turning point is on the horizon is, in many ways, an opportunity. The coming demographic changes can provide the catalyst needed to revisit some common practices in land development that have, over time, generated more problems than promise, particularly for older adults.
For the last seven decades, the dominant development paradigm has been one primarily focused on meeting the perceived needs of families with children. That focus manifested in a regulatory context (through zoning and building codes) that led the market to build a predominance of single-family detached homes within auto-centric transportation networks and largely separated from commercial and industrial uses.
A number of problematic environmental consequences have emerged as a result, among them: rapid land conversion, increased demands for energy and water, and growing carbon emissions.
Social and economic consequences have emerged, too: longer and more costly commutes, increased social isolation, higher infrastructure costs, greater dependency on automobiles for mobility and independence, and more financial vulnerability associated with housing costs.
All of these costs are even more acute for older Americans. For older adults, the equity in their homes may be their single largest source of savings — which can either be enormously comforting or terrifyingly volatile, depending on where someone lives. And for those who aren't homeowners, rent represents a greater burden than ever before. As reported by Forbes, 50 percent of renters age 65 or over now pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing. Another 30 percent are severely burdened, paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing.
A conundrum we face is that the vast majority of older adults, roughly 90 percent of adults age 65 or older, want to "age in place" in their homes and their communities. Most want to do so because they like their community. They like and know their doctors, and their doctors know them. They like living near their friends. They want to remain close to their children and grandkids. Such connections are not just nice to have — they actually contribute to the health and well-being of older adults.
Social isolation has been identified as one of the social determinants of health, posing the same risk to one's health as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. To the degree that we have created places that inhibit, discourage or outright prevent older adults from interacting with others as they age — due to a loss of mobility or even poor home design — we contribute to the pandemic of social isolation rather than solving for it.
The great news is that many of the community characteristics older adults seek are the same ones that attract younger adults and make communities more economically vibrant and successful. Boomers and millennials alike share an affinity for places that offer a shorter commute, proximity to shops and services, a mix of homes, a mix of incomes, and robust public transit options.
AARP works to build awareness of and support for community-led efforts in the following ways:
- AARP helps communities examine their housing, transportation and access needs through an age-friendly lens. Some 250 towns, cities and counties — and some states — are enrolled in the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. Through a five year planning and implementation process, real action is taken in communities across eight "domains of age-friendly."
- AARP works to support communities in diversifying their housing stock. We share information and provide technical support to cities, towns and states that seek to increase the use of accessory dwelling units and other means to increase the range of housing choices. (ADUs not only provide an option for older adults to downsize in their communities, but these small residences can generate much-needed income to offset housing costs, or proximate housing for caregivers or family.)
- AARP works to educate communities and residents on how to determine the livability of their neighborhood. Through the interactive AARP Livability Index, AARP provides a data-driven score that reveals how livable an area is across more than 60 indicators related to housing, transportation, health and the environment. The score is a great conversation starter on how and where a community can begin to take action to become more age-friendly and more livable.
- AARP invests in communities to strengthen the quality of place and encourage citizen engagement. Through the AARP Community Challenge quick-action grants, and a partnership with Team Better Block to conduct tactical urbanism demonstrations in communities nationwide, AARP is investing real resources into making places more intergenerational, more vibrant and more engaging for all.
We have seen the real difference that these and other strategies can make in communities.
- In Macon-Bibb, Georgia, one of the pioneers in the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities, the city is undertaking an ambitious project to convert and revitalize the Second Street corridor into a downtown gateway.
- In Fort Worth, Texas, we've seen the city use a temporary roundabout provided through a Team Better Block project to demonstrate the value of traffic calming, and ultimately install a permanent roundabout to increase pedestrian safety.
- In Eugene, Oregon, we've seen the town invest in modifications to make tiny homes accessible for mobility-impaired older adults as part of an affordable urban tiny house village. (The Eugene and Fort Worth examples are featured in the 2018 edition of the AARP Where We Live series.)
The great news is that AARP is not alone. So many of our partners in the health, mobility, housing, economic development and public space professions see the value proposition in these strategies — and so many AARP members seek these characteristics in their communities.
As we work together to ready ourselves and our communities for 2035, I'm confident we can build great places for all people of all ages. And I'm confident those communities will help usher in our nation's "older" reality with comfort and ease.