It's no problem for Stella Gerson to walk down to the bus stop. Getting home is the hard part.
"I have to go up a hill to my house," said the 89-year-old San Anselmo, Calif., resident, who suffers from macular degeneration, a disease that blurs her vision.
In Northern California where Gerson lives, transportation is one of several pressing needs for a rapidly graying population. Age-friendly housing, affordable healthcare, walkable neighborhoods, crime-free streets and social activities are others.
As they age, many residents think about these needs by asking themselves, "Is my community a great place to grow old?"
That question is becoming more urgent as 78 million US boomers race toward retirement like a "silver tsunami" that, by its sheer size and market power, will change the way we think about aging. The answer will likely redefine retirement, not only for boomers but for the generations that follow.
"We have a wonderful challenge ahead," said Christine Kennedy, chief executive officer of the Leading Age Institute, which helps communities launch "age-friendly" programs. Boomers are "coming at the infrastructure of cities at a rapid pace, and if we don't prepare for it, we're in trouble."
While the problem is national, solutions must be tailored to specific needs of each city and county. Five diverse Northern California cities - San Francisco, San Rafael, Santa Rosa, Sacramento and Vallejo - reflect the range of challenges that face communities across the United States.
In this three-part series based on dozens of interviews conducted over the course of three months, we examine why it's important for a city to become age friendly; the challenges raised by the graying population; and shortcomings that towns need to address. We also examine initiatives by individuals who are leveraging community resources to fill needs that cities can't address.
Changes in cities over the next two decades will be driven by the "longevity revolution" as the ranks of US adults over 60 soar and many more lifespans stretch past the century mark. While these changes present challenges to cities that are ill-equipped or unprepared, they also serve as a wake-up call to tap into the skill and expertise of older adults. These elders represent a key to the solutions, whether it's through volunteer work, sharing professional experience or helping families with childcare.
As cities consider the entire life-spans of their residents - children, working adults and the retired - officials are forced to rethink services that define age-friendly living. Those include housing, transportation, healthcare, civic participation, safety and employment.
Addressing that list requires that residents:
are close to health services; have access to stores;
can engage in social and cultural activities;
and live in tight-knit neighborhoods where residents care for one another.
Downtown centers often become hubs to these amenities. For example, Portland, Ore., and New York City are trying to meet many of these goals through their participation in the Age Friendly Cities Project started by the World Health Organization.
Outside of services, the "aging friendly" concept boils down to design, said Andrew Scharlach, professor of aging at the University of California, Berkeley. It's "more about how we create communities that bring people into contact with one another and make it easier" to live.
|County||Growth in Elders|
|Marin||30% over 60 by 2030|
|San Francisco||20% over 60 by 2020|
|Sacramento||Over-65 population to triple by 2040|
|Solano||Over-60 population up 72% by 2030|
|Sonoma||Over 60 population up 163% 2030|
|Sources: Marin Community Foundation, San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services, Sacramento County Adult and Aging Commission, Sonoma County Area Agency on Aging, Area Agency on Aging Napa-Solano.|
One big challenge is addressing "intersecting interests" of aging populations and people with disabilities, added Patrick Fox, a sociologist and co-director of the Institute for Health & Aging at the University of California, San Francisco.
"Thereís been this schism where 'These are programs for older adults' and 'These are programs for younger adults,' and not a lot of dialogue or thinking about how the needs of these population groups might be similar and dealt with in a holistic way at the community level," Fox said.
Local governments nationwide are struggling as their cash flow plummets along with declining home values and sales tax revenue.
In California - which tends to set trends nationally - 24 percent has been cut from programs administered by the state Department of Aging, according to the California Association of Area Agencies on Aging. That includes funding for a long-term care ombudsman in each county who supports patients living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
Meanwhile, adults are trying to find their way through their own fiscal land-mines: rising healthcare costs, insufficient retirement savings and falling home equity. "Economic security for older adults is a problem thatís getting worse," Fox said.
Most boomers want to age in place. They want to retire in the cities where they raised their families, started businesses and forged neighborhood ties. And younger residents worry about competing with the older generation for limited community resources.
"There are a lot of multiple and conflicting needs to address," Fox said. "In these times, it's difficult to sustain things that may have smaller funding base than they had in the past."
The trend is likely to accelerate because local governments count heavily upon sales and property taxes that are falling along with consumer spending. The state of California, currently facing a deficit estimated at over $40 billion, is in no position to help.
"The safest thing to say is, with this large deficit, there are going to be service reductions in all areas, including senior services," said Patricia Fruiht, assistant to the city manager of Santa Rosa, which is facing its own $20 million deficit
Conditions in Vallejo, which declared bankruptcy in May, are much worse. "Shoring up core services will precede new initiatives such as aging," said Craig Whittom, assistant city manager. "It's not something weíre happy about at all, but thatís our reality currently."
Given cities' tough position, members of the community are coming together in various ways - from social networks to fundraising - to address the entire generational continuum. Too often, solutions that could complement different age groups such as housing or day care are overlooked.
"We need to see these as multigenerational communities, and thatís the way we need to create the language," said Barry Barkan, founder of the Elders' Guild in Berkeley, Calif.
The message is just starting to get through as cities discover they need to evolve or be crushed by the longevity revolution.