AOL News: Cities Getting More Elder-Friendly; Suburbs Too
By Robert W. Stock
September 18, 2010
They're going to build a new playground in a Manhattan park -- a playground for old people.
As Jessica Lappin, chairwoman of the City Council's Aging Committee, told AOL News, the playground is expected to have chess tables, gentle exercise equipment and plenty of shaded benches where frail elders can relax without worrying about bikes, skateboards, and errant Frisbees.
It's a small piece of a major campaign that is making New York much more elder-friendly -- a goal that has been adopted of late by communities all across the country. They're working hard to keep those oldsters they have and recruit others -- particularly the hordes of active, free-spending baby boomers who are fast approaching retirement age.
"Any smart city wants to court seniors," Lappin said. "They enrich the fabric of society, and they have enormous purchasing power." The new mantra: Old folks represent an opportunity, not just a problem.
As a veteran New York retiree, I don't really need to be convinced that cities are a great place to grow old, but I have no objection to making them better.
In my town, off-duty school buses are now taking old people to grocery stores. Traffic lights have been adjusted to give elders more time to cross at intersections. Artists are using senior centers as studios in return for providing art lessons to members. Two large areas of the city have been chosen for testing of a variety of programs to make elders' lives easier and healthier.
In many cities, local groups have been mobilized to provide services. In Cleveland, for instance, Boy Scouts rake elders' leaves, and church volunteers paint their homes.
Other cities are participating in pilot projects inspired by outside organizations. Burlington, Vt., and Kingsport, Tenn., for example, are among the 15 cities that have signed on for the AARP Livable Community Project, which seeks to identify local lapses in senior services and correct them.
More than a dozen cities are sponsoring an Elder Friendly Business Certification program, promoted by a nonprofit organization born in senior-conscious Portland, Ore. Companies that meet high standards for service and convenience for older customers, as judged by those customers themselves, are entitled to display an Elder Friendly decal.
Even before the arrival of these new programs, cities like New York have been playgrounds for retirees with a decent-sized nest egg. They have everything an older person needs -- and a great deal more.
Not so the suburbs. A house of your own out there beyond city limits is part of the Great American Dream, but the aging process can be a painful wake-up call. When you can no longer drive safely, you're apt to find yourself stuck at home, dependent on neighbors and relatives for transport to the grocery store, the bank or the doctor's, prey to loneliness and depression.
Like their urban counterparts, many suburban communities today are looking for ways to improve the lot of their older residents. Towns are:
• Expanding their senior transport networks, installing sidewalks and creating pedestrian-only shopping areas.
• Encouraging the construction of condominiums and townhouses where older neighbors can keep track of each other, as opposed to single-family homes.
• Creating mixed-use enclaves in which residents can walk to work and to markets, restaurants and movie theaters.
Of course, those elder amenities already exist in the city, in spades. My reduced-fare senior transit card whisks me around on subways and buses, though I can find most of what I want within walking distance. Cities are mixed-use by definition, old and young mingling in shops, workplaces and apartment houses.
In contrast to the suburbs, New York offers lots of high-quality, low-cost music and theater, plus inexpensive continuing-education programs to keep your aging mind active. There are first-rate doctors to fit any pocketbook, and chances are your home will have elevators, not just stairs.
Admittedly, city life has its disadvantages, particularly for older people accustomed to the suburbs. There's a shortage of clean air, more pushing and shoving on the streets and in the shops, less privacy, more crime.
In Aesop's fable, the country mouse hastily returns from his visit to town. "Better beans and bacon in peace," he says, "than cakes and ale in fear."
In my time, I've been both country mouse and town mouse, experiencing the benefits and risks of both estates. For my personal fourth quarter, though, the game is no contest: It's the city life for me.