Writing in the New York Times, Allison Arieff picks up on a theme we've been covering on MNN: how aging boomers will live after they hang up their car keys. She describes taking the keys from an elderly relative: “Don’t take my car away,” he pleaded. “Without my car I don’t have a life.”
He plans on staying in his suburban home, “even if that home is slowly becoming a dangerous place for him to be in.” Allison does’t say how old her elderly relative is, but I suspect he's not a baby boomer, born between 1946 and 1964, and topping out now at 71. This is an important distinction for a number of reasons; Allison is describing the problems faced by seniors now, and she's extrapolating it to the younger baby boomer cohort, noting that 10,000 of them are reaching the important age of 65 every day. Allison is surprised that the market is not really being addressed by the housing industry, writing:
Thoughtfully designed housing for older adults is not being created on a scale commensurate with the growing need. It’s not a market many architects or developers have embraced. Conversely, a disproportionate amount of attention has been focused on the presumed desires of millennials. We hear all the time that it’s that group that craves walkability, good transit and everything-at-their-doorstep amenities — and that only cities can provide it.
There are a number of reasons for that: most of the people who do marketing are young. Doing stuff for old people isn’t fun. One marketing consultant who founded the Boomer Project noted:
It's as if marketers all wear the same blinders. Because so many marketing executives are under 40 — or even under 30 — many presume most consumers not only think like them, but want to be like them....Most marketing that targets Boomers presumes there's something wrong with them that needs fixing, such as age spots, wrinkles or erectile dysfunction. It's malady-based. For the most part, it's not accurate."
Sure, things will go wrong, but not in the order you think
So when the companies do think about designing for those growing older, their thinking is malady-based too; even Allison lists what could be considered malady-based design issues like “step-free entrances, single-floor living, under-counter appliances, and halls and doorways that accommodate wheelchairs.”
But as we noted in our post about what kind of housing do aging boomers need, these mobility-based problems are the last to hit us; the first are household-based activities like driving, food shopping, taking medication and meal prep. These start hitting in significant numbers in the mid 70s, and the boomers aren't there yet.
These are also problems that are solved by community — being able to walk to shop, cheap restaurants where one can get prepared food, neighbors who might look in and check if you're taking your medication.
Right now, boomers feel pretty good
The fact is that right now, most of the baby boomer cohort is still pretty healthy. According to a Del Webb study, they all feel a lot younger than they are, and until the health problems start hitting them, they will think they are much younger. So it should be no surprise that there are not too many of them worrying right now about giving up their cars; they all think they're fine.
Every day for the next 19 years, 10,000 people will reach age 65. That companies aren’t scrambling to exploit this market is not only unfortunate for their bottom line, but almost certainly treacherous, eventually, for all of us.
Oh, but the companies are indeed going after this market. I believe that Allison is making the dangerous mistake of conflating seniors with their kids, the baby boom generation.
The power of boomers
Baby boomers buy 60 percent of packaged goods, spend 75 percent more on vacations, and buy half of all new cars. They own a third of all the iPhones and half of the Macs. Baby boomers, because they get out and vote in higher numbers, just elected the new American government and pretty much control it. President Trump is 70, Wilbur Ross (Trump's nominee for secretary of commerce) is 79, and the average age of the cabinet is 62. The baby boomers own America, and now they rule it.
Allison alludes to some of the alternative forms of housing, like co-housing and communes — and don't forget baugruppen. She also mentions NORCs (naturally occurring retirement communities). I've gone on about the importance of living in walkable communities with those things that Allison says the millennials want, such as good transit and everything-at-their-doorstep amenities. We both agree that people have to start thinking seriously about these issues, but most baby boomers simply haven’t yet. Most who have decent jobs aren't seeing that retirement barrier at age 65 either.
Allison also describes how technology can be part of the solution, with Uber, home delivery, apps and wearables. She notes that “Summoning these cars is a no-brainer for heavy users of smartphones, but for older people with declining vision and motor skills, it’s a puzzle.” But not for us baby boomers; we just upgrade to the iPhone 7 Plus and get a bigger screen. (I did, and it works!) Again, she's conflating seniors with tech-savvy boomers who have fine, well-practiced index finger skills, along with Siri and Alexa.
In fact, I think the biggest problem for boomers might well be over-reliance on technology. My late mother-in-law spent her last years parked in front of the television, with only the 50 channels the cable company gave her. Now we can get endless streaming of Netflix and every other service to fill our time. Soon we all might be wearing Oculus headsets and never leaving our chairs.
Everyone is talking about George Orwell’s "1984" right now, but perhaps a better analogy of where we're going is Aldous Huxley’s "Brave New World," with its Soma, the drug for “dulling the senses against any perception of the emptiness of life” and its feelies, films so real that you get smells and touch as well as sight and sound.
That's what happens when people are trapped in their homes, or when they lose their car keys. Which is why we have to think community first, interior design second. And in the end, we're talking about timing. The baby boomer demographic bulge is just getting into its senior years. As one senior living expert, Bob Kramer, noted in an article Allison pointed to:
“Some of this is like surfing — you have to time the wave,” Kramer says. “You paddle too soon, and you wipe out spectacularly.”
The oldest boomers are just 71 now. But they're the leading edge with many, many millions to follow. We are 10 years away from the real crisis here. The question is, do we fix our cities and towns now so that they're ready for this wave, or will it drown us all?