The issue for boomers won't be 'aging in place'

The real question will be, 'How do I get out of this place?'

Lloyd Alter
August 13, 2018, 12:58 p.m.
You can only do this for so long. (Photo: Mick Tinbergen via Wikipedia)

The oldest baby boomers have just turned 70, and most can drive to their birthday parties. They're being followed by 70 million other boomers, all happily motoring along. Their parents? Not so good these days. Janet Morrissey of The New York Times looks at the issue of transportation for senior citizens and sees a problem: lack of transportation.

It's no longer enough to call a taxi or regular car service and hope that frail seniors can get in and out — or through the entrance of a doctor's office on their own as the driver speeds off. For people requiring oxygen tanks and wheelchairs, it's an even bigger challenge, and long waiting periods are often required to arrange for specially equipped vehicles.

Morrissey is interviewing people in their 80s and 90s but recognizes that this will be a growing problem.

"It's going to become a massive phenomena,[sic]" said Ken Dychtwald, founder and chief executive of Age Wave, a consulting firm specializing in age-related issues. "This is an unmet need that's going to be in the tens of millions of people."

I read the article with increasing incredulity as she talks about new startups like RoundTrip and Circulation that provide rides. Reading it makes me want to scream in all bold capital letters: THIS ISN'T A TRANSPORTATION PROBLEM. IT'S AN URBAN DESIGN PROBLEM! Only once, in the entire article, did it mention that we are in this mess because of the great suburban experiment of designing our world around cars.

One woman who cannot drive because of a broken elbow complains:

"In the suburbs, there is no public transportation whatsoever," she said. "When you don't have access to public transportation and your spouse is working and your children are no longer home, it's a little difficult to get to your appointments."

According to Morrissey, 30 percent of patients skip appointments because they can't get to them, and it costs the health care industry $150 billion per year. And these are serious Greatest Generation seniors, not baby boomers who are coming up next. The next 20 years will be a different story. Why? Because 70 percent of baby boomers live in the suburbs.

"With the population aging, we absolutely see a lot of growth in need," said Jennifer Hartt, director of investments in health and digital health for Ben Franklin Technology Partners and an early investor in RoundTrip.

My first reaction was "well, duh…". But baby boomers are dreaming if they think that services like RoundTrip can fill the needs of 70 million aging boomers.

Asking the wrong questions

What goes wrong first when you get old. (Photo: JCHS)

Baby boomers are looking around their houses and thinking "What can I do so that I can age in place?" and investing in renovations, when all the data show that one of the first things go to is the ability to drive — long before the ability to walk. Instead, they should be asking "What can I do to get out of this place? How will I get to the doctor or the grocery?" Every single one of them has to look in the mirror right now and ask themselves, "What do I do when I can't drive?"

My mother-in-law's house with that rusting Saturn in the driveway. (Photo: Google Maps)

I've written before about my late mother-in-law's experience, about how it won't be pretty when the boomers lose their cars. I keep going back to it because it was so horrible. In the last few years of my mother-in-law's life, my wife Kelly spent two hours to take her mother to the doctor or the grocery. Joyce was lucky; Kelly didn't work and could spend her day taking care of her mom. Not many people can do this. My own mom lived in an apartment in midtown and was within an easy walk (or wheelchair-push in her later years) to her doctor. She also had access to "wheel-trans" or special buses that transport people with disabilities; each ride costs the city $30.79. What happens when 70 million baby boomers start demanding transportation like that?

The problem is that we designed our suburbs and our newer cities around the car, so if you can't drive, you[re trapped. As Sara Joy Proppe wrote in Strong Towns,

By designing our cities for cars, and consequently neglecting our sidewalks, we have siloed our elders in several ways. Not only does an inability to drive confine many seniors to their homes, but corresponding busy roads and inhumane streetscapes add to the isolating effect by also limiting walkability.

We have time to fix this

In 10 or 15 years, tens of millions of baby boomers will be in that position. That's actually enough time to fix a lot of this. Walkable cities and towns have a way of turning into NORCs, or Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities. There are enough older people around to provide support services relatively efficiently. There are things for people to do; after my dad died, my mom took up bridge and played for years; she hated cards, but knew she needed to keep doing things, and there were people in the building she could befriend through bridge, so she played cards.

This is why we have to stop thinking of this as a transportation problem; it's not. It is also why people have to end this fantasy of aging in place in the suburbs, trapped in their own little worlds. Instead they should think about moving to where they can actually get out of their homes and do stuff — meet people, shop or go to the doctor.

If urban planners and the politicians they work for had any sense, they would stop approving any more suburban sprawl and do a big intervention to allow mid-rise apartment construction everywhere in city centers where there is transit and pedestrian infrastructure that lets people get to their doctors and grocers without needing a car. Or they would adopt the principles of New Urbanism and make every new community walkable.

Google's cute little self-driving car of the future is no longer a thing; they have moved on. (Photo: Google)

Instead, they either ignore this problem or pronounce, "Self-driving cars, autonomous vehicles will save us!" (In fact, we have said that right here on MNN.)

They won't; they don't exist, and the problems with them may be insurmountable. Ultimately, we have to face the fact that this an urban design problem, that our suburbs don't work for an aging population. Ultimately, we have to build communities for people, not cars, as we have in the past. Most critically, we have to face the inevitability of demographics: Today it's a problem, but in 10 or 15 years, it's a disaster.