Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for the Salt Lake Tribune about the challenges of getting around when you’re old. The article was based on a previous piece I wrote about a man who was basically dying a slow death in his rural home because he could no longer get around.
The point of these two articles was that at a certain age people can no longer drive, but if the built environment only caters to cars you’re kind of stuck. More alarming still, the demographic that is too old to drive is about to explode, as I pointed out in my Tribune article.
Strong Towns tackled a similar thesis last week:
When we plan our communities, we rarely accommodate, or even think about the elderly. We often build “retirement villages” in an attempt to solve a problem that should not exist in the first place, and while these retirement villages are walkable and accommodating inside they are often built right in the middle of automobile-dependent sprawl, isolating those inside from the greater community.
The Strong Towns post goes on to point out that fixing this problem doesn’t mean adding a bus line here and there. Rather, it means retrofitting cities with good transit, good destinations for transit to serve, and strong urban cores.
In other words, we need to redesign cities so that people who cannot drive can still lead active lives.
I’m reminded here of my own grandma, who has lived in a car-dependent neighborhoods for as long as I’ve known her. As she has aged, that situation resulted in more and more isolation. Finally, earlier this year, my family moved her into a nursing home in a car-dependent neighborhood. She hates it there.
Over the last few years, I’ve wondered how her life would have been different if she could get around on foot. She can still walk just fine and is in decent mental shape; if she lived in a walkable neighborhood she would still be fairly independent. But because her neighborhood was designed for cars, family members had to step in and take care of most of her needs. When that became a burden, she basically became a prisoner in the nursing home.
It’s really a sad situation, but it’s also one that is only going to become more common as the baby boomers hit old age. It’s also worth pointing out that the experts I talked to for my Tribune articles do not believe our current nursing home system has the capacity for the baby boom generation.
In contrast to my own grandma, my wife’s grandpa also has limited mobility. He can’t drive, and can’t really even sit in a car for very long. He also can’t go very far on foot and requires a walker to get around. Physically, he’s more incapacitated than my grandma.
But he also lives in downtown Salt Lake City. As a result, he can get to most of the amenities he needs. When I’ve visited him and we go out to eat, we always walk to a restaurant down the street.
Obviously one situation is better for everyone. Not only is my wife’s grandpa happier than my grandma, but his age is less of a burden on the rest of the family.
And families are what this all comes back to. There are a lot of specific things that we can do to make our cities more friendly for our aging loved ones — and I’ll try to get into some of those things in later posts — but perhaps the first thing we need to do is simply change our mindset. As Strong Towns points out:
Next time you go to label a community as being ‘family oriented’ – do not just think about the parents or the recently retired that are able to depend on an automobile at a moment’s notice. Ask yourself, would your 13 year old kid or elderly granny on a walker have their freedom, and be happy there?