Aging in Place through Sustainable Planning

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This article by Michael Figura was first published in the New Life Journal.

The failure of our community design over the last 60 years is evidenced by the popularity of assisted living centers and other senior care facilities throughout America.    According to the AARP, there are over 33,000 assisted living facilities operating in the US today.  These facilities do not provide regular medical services as do nursing homes, and they market themselves as providing more autonomy than nursing homes.  In fact one of their biggest selling points is that they provide transportation and help with “getting around.”

It is not a coincidence that assisted living centers have sprung up at the same time that our society has become especially auto dependent.   The car has become the dominant form of transportation in almost every American city and town, and as a consequence, people who are not comfortable driving or people who simply cannot drive have little or no independence and freedom to go where they please.  For teenagers, this can spark feelings of being trapped and caged.  In the elderly, who have once had the privilege to drive but no longer do drive, the feelings of isolation and loss of freedom are often present.  Thus, our society has unintentionally but ignorantly grown in such a way so that in the last leg of our lives, we need to be carted around like cattle because we do not or cannot drive.

However, the lack of mobility problem is the lesser of the two evils for aging in place that result from an auto oriented lifestyle.   There are insidious health related side effects of a sedentary, auto-oriented existence.   In 1996, the Surgeon General released a report entitled Physical Health and Activity, in which heart disease, muscle and joint weakness, high blood pressure, depression and anxiety, and high obesity levels were listed as the results of too little exercise.  The report stated that “moderately intense physical activity helps to maintain the functional independence of older adults and enhance the quality of life for people of all ages.”   The Surgeon General recognized that people of every age need to get their exercise through their daily routine instead of devoting time specifically for exercise, and that walking and biking as modes of transportation are the critical elements for people getting enough exercise throughout their day.  As further proof of this concept, in a joint study between the Center for Disease Control and the American Institute of Certified Planners, cities with higher rates of walking, biking and transit were linked with lower rates of heart disease and lower blood pressure (Health and Community Design, 2003).

The long and short of it is that having a transportation network that offers viable options besides the car is one the greatest, if not the single greatest, way to achieve aging in place strategies in the United States.  This does not mean that we should sacrifice our quality of life and all live in concrete urban jungles so that we can walk and bike to places.  Rather, as a society, we need to move towards clean and green urban living where nature is weaved throughout the city and where good urban design inspires people to live in town.  By having good urban design, walking and biking become fun and convenient modes of transportation where people not only get exercise, but get to know their neighbors from the daily interaction that occurs when people are not isolated behind the glass and steel of a car.

Unfortunately, the last 60 years has inhibited aging in place because most of America has been developed in a manner that does not foster walking and biking through good urban design.  What can we do as a society to change that?  Becoming involved in the local planning process is a start, but more importantly, we need to begin forsaking the old American Dream of a single family home with a large yard and a white picket fence and replace it with a new American Dream where people can age in place and live healthy, fulfilling lives by residing in an inspiring urban environment.  The best way to support this new American Dream is by following the advice of Mahatma Gandhi to “be the change you want to see in the world” and making your next move into town.