I was in Sienna, Italy, five years ago on Nov. 12 when I celebrated my 60th birthday. Even though I was on vacation, I had to join an "all hands" conference call to learn that the website I worked for, TreeHugger.com, was now part of the Mother Nature Network. This was a shock, but it turned out to be a great birthday present. I've been contributing to MNN.com ever since, primarily as a way of scratching my itch to write about how technology is changing the way we live, and how the baby boomer generation is adapting to it. So it's a very happy fifth anniversary.
Today, Nov. 12, 2017, is also my 65th birthday and according to my government (I live in Toronto, Canada) I'm now a senior citizen. There are benefits — a few discounts, but nothing like they do in the U.K. where transit and museums are totally free. Being in Ontario, my health care has been free for decades, but now prescription drugs are as well. I even get a little pension! But what is a senior citizen exactly? According to a study, A Portrait of Seniors in Canada:
There are ongoing debates about the definition of "senior." According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, a senior citizen is "an elderly person, especially a person over 65". And an elderly is, according to the same reference source, "rather old; past middle age."
The authors of the study, written a decade ago, note that "as the first Baby Boomers turn 65 years old, it is possible that a new definition of 'senior' will replace the current one." I certainly hope so; I don't feel particularly elderly, and ran 6.9 km (4.2 miles) to get my hair cut before my birthday dinner (although I was slow, 7 minutes per km) just to prove it to myself.
I wore my new spiky short hair to dinner with my friends last night, all of us about the same age. Some are building hotels around the world; another is consulting to nonprofits. It's true that they are not all in the best of health, and that there's a huge spectrum among people my age when it comes to who can ride their bikes across Sweden or run for miles, and who has trouble walking to the corner because of arthritis or strokes.
But they are all contributing. They are all out there, still changing our city and some of them, our world. They, like me, would say that we are not slowing down, we're just getting started.
I've sometimes felt that writing about this subject has been like talking into the wind, that nobody is listening or reading. So on this birthday, I'm going to round up my favorite boomer angsty posts from the last few years that perhaps will find a new audience. Then I'm going to go for another long run in the cold — because I can.
Where will we live?
This is the issue that has obsessed me the most. The vast majority of Americans live in the suburbs and get around by car; they either want to stay in their homes or have no choice because they cannot sell them. Yet the suburbs are not equipped to handle this. "The fact is, there is a major urban planning disaster staring us all in the face, which is going to seriously hit everyone young and old in about 10 years when the oldest boomers are 78. We have to prepare for it now." More: It won't be pretty when boomers lose their carsIt won't be pretty when boomers lose their cars
I started my paragraph on design for aging in place with "I'm going to get in trouble for this because it's counter to the accepted wisdom." But if you look at all the homes designed for aging in place, they are big bungalow with big bathrooms and big garages, further apart. And in fact, according to one expert, "As we learn about aging, we’re finding that the malleability, the elasticity, the potential for people to age well is greater than ever previously imagined." They are also aging in better health. "Isolation kills. Lack of exercise kills. Yet we seem to be designing our cities to maximize both. It's time for a redesign." More: 9 ways to redesign (and rethink) retirement
Americans want a fuller life, but they don’t want to live where the amenities, the libraries and theaters and bookstores and where the other people are, which is in the city. They are worried about their health but don’t want to be where the hospitals and the doctors and the specialists are. They want peace of mind, but they still want 2,000 square feet of house in the middle of a lawn that has to be mowed, on a cul-de-sac where they can’t get transit. Basically they want what they have now, but on one floor. More: New study confirms that boomers are clueless
I looked at the statistics of what happens as we age, what goes first, and find that the obsession with big bungalows gets it exactly backwards. "... the planners and retirement home designers are prescribing car-dependent low density, one-floor single-family houses, when the urban design equivalent of sugar is the car — it's our dependence on it that's killing us all." More: What kind of housing do aging boomers need?
I then look at one particular house design, a model home for a retirement community, and conclude that “it's not only not a very good example of design for aging in place in, but is in fact probably exactly the opposite, a house that might in fact age you in place.” This house is not designed to help anyone age gracefully. More recently, I looked at a survey of architects and thought they were not doing the right thing for their clients in Architects know what aging boomers want, but are they giving them what they need?
How will we get around?
They sure don't look like they're Snapchatting. (Photo: Garry Knight/flickr)
If aging boomers are going to walk and cycle more, then cities have to be designed to keep them safer. "while everybody is complaining about young people compromising their hearing and vision with smartphones, the fact is that a huge and growing proportion of our population is compromised by age. Drivers should be driving on the assumption the person in the road is not looking or seeing them, because they might not be able to." More: Complaining about walking while texting is like complaining about walking while old
What do we do with all our stuff?
In the past three years our family has gone through major changes; we downsized from occupying our entire three storey house to an apartment on the ground floor, and had a lot to get rid of. But it was worth it; "In the end, it is actually a wonderful feeling of lightness, as if these dead weights had been tying you down. A sense of freedom." More: How to lighten your life by downsizing
But my wife was still attached her mother's tea cups, which fortunately are small. The big stuff is a bigger problem; "with today’s disposable culture, it's cheaper to buy a sofa from IKEA than it is to hire a truck and a mover for grandma’s giant sofa." Nobody wants the family heirlooms anymore,
That post may have been the most popular post I have written on MNN. So of course I followed it up with The story of (getting rid of) stuff.
Then, this spring my mother died; she had a lot of stuff. After downsizing, we didn't have a lot of room. But there are tools that can help; I wrote about how we did it in Mom may be gone, but what about all her stuff?
When do you get to say 'I'm too old for this'?
Every morning in the summer, I get out in my scull and I try and knock a few seconds off the time it takes to go around the lake. A rower knows that brute strength is important, but so is experience and finesse. I cannot see where I'm going, but I've been doing the same course for years so I don’t need to. I sometimes think “I’m too old to for this;” it's particularly hard to get in and out of a racing shell. Then the oar bites into the water at just the right angle and the boat glides just a little bit faster and I think, as I do about my writing every day, that with practice, I might actually get good at this. More: When do you get to say 'I'm too old for this'?
And then there is my most angsty piece from just a few months ago:
I don't accept irrelevance. I count my twitter followers (follow me here!) and newsletter subscribers (subscribe here!) every day, relishing every retweet. But then I get on my bike and go downtown and realize I don’t know this city anymore — and it doesn’t know me either. When it comes to what I did 20 years ago, I'm no longer relevant. But so many of us are doing different things, and in this different world, we still have a role to play. How do you stay relevant as you get older?
Wait, there's more!!
There's tons more; I wanted to talk about gadgets that make life easier, about fitness, exercise and health, but it's my birthday and I want to get outside. So read them all at MNN here.