An Alternative to Senior Living Communities

We moved my elderly mother-in law Mary into an assisted living facility this weekend.  A member of the “greatest generation”, she had tried to maintain her independence for as long as possible, but failing  capabilities finally led to a need for full time assistance, as we feared what might happen if left alone. We could not afford twenty-four hour sitters, so in order to care for her with in her means, she agreed to move to as assisted living facility.  There she would have the help she needed when she needed it, allowing her some time alone as well, which was a complaint she had about having in home full time caregivers.

Mary’s  is probably a typical life story.  As a widower, about a decade ago she had sold the home in which she had raised her family and moved to a smaller one level town home to be closer to her grandchildren. It was a nice one level townhouse in a suburban area two miles from us. Like all suburbanites, she used  her car to get to the stores, church and doctor’s visits as needed. Though she lived alone, she  was active socially, driving herself to church  regularly and to other events by herself.

However, as she aged,  her driving skills began to fail her. Although she was still  physically active and mentally sharp, a small fender bender  frightened her and convinced her that she did not need to be driving any longer.  (Always thinking of others, she was more afraid of hurting someone rather than concerned for her own safety).  We worried about her safety, and after my wife promised to take her where ever she needed to go, she  gave up her car and become totally dependent on us for just about everything. The loss of her car meant the loss of her independent lifestyle, not because she was in poor health, but simply because she had no other way to get around on her own. She slowly became more isolated from her friends and the rest of the community, not wanting to burden us with her travel needs any more than necessary.

Her experience has me and my wife  thinking about our future and how we want to approach our own senior years. Like many other ” Boomers”, our daughter is grown and will (hopefully) soon be independent of us. Our  suburban home is beginning to seem too large, and more than we really want to maintain. (At this time in our life, we want to spend our weekends on travel and other experiences, not home maintenance).  We also know the day will come when we too will no longer be able to drive, thought that is still, hopefully pretty far into the future. But when it happens, we do not want to find ourselves suddenly stranded. What are our options?

The senior retirement facility that Mary moved into is of a type that we see more and more of these days. Intended to provide everything you will need as you age in one development, it covers about fifty acres in suburban Birmingham. There is usually a minimum age requirement, so no kids or middle aged people allowed except to visit. Typically, there is a community of garden homes for those who still drive, and a health club. As you age, you can “graduate” to a flat, a one level apartment where you still have your own kitchen and some independence, but have access to a community dining facility for at least one hot meal a day. Then,  when you find you need assistance with daily activities like dressing and bathing, you  move into a group home environment where they check on you every few hours, help you with your needs and dispense your medications to you. If a serious illness, such as a stroke requires skilled nursing care, these services are also available on site.

These facilities provide state of the art care when you need it, and are usually well landscaped and cared for. The architecture is residential in character, and softly decorated inside so there is less sense that you are in an institution. The operators go to great length to provide age appropriate activities to keep you busy, and usually provide travel services to doctors and regular shopping trips for those able. While not the “nursing homes” our parents feared, something real still seems to be missing from this experience.

Like the suburbia around them, these retirement communities are typically isolated from the community at large,  accessible only by car . While they may have sidewalks and nature trails, there is no where to walk to, and the only people you see are other elderly, their caretakers or visiting friends and relatives. Chance encounters are unlikely and unless you can still drive, opportunities to contribute to the community at large are non existent.

While this sort of facility has its benefits, I am pretty sure this is not the way to go for me and my wife. We are physically active people, involved in our communities, who want remain that way as long as possible. We like interacting with people of all ages and backgrounds. Retiring to such an isolated community does not appeal to us, even though we acknowledge that we will someday need some assisted living services once we succumb to the frailty of old age.  If after losing my ability to drive, if I could safely walk to the drug store and grocer store on complete streets and perhaps have access to transit for a visit to the doctor if not near by, I would think my health would benefit and I would be able to remain independent and active that much longer. I really wish this option were available to us in Birmingham.

New Urbanism offers the solution for what we are seeking. The Principles of New Urbanism result in walkable towns and communities with a real sense of human scale, where the car is an option, but not the only option. In a compact walkable community with all the services one needs,  the elderly can remain independent and engaged in their community for a longer time, especially if   “aging in place” design concepts are applied to home design.  On a real street you meet real people (and see kids as well).  The traditional neighborhood envisioned by New Urbanism includes a variety of housing types, much of which could be suitable for the elderly all with in walking distance of transit, grocers, pharmacies, and other needs.  Assisted living and skilled care facilities would fit right in, integrated with, and accessible to the rest of the community.

Many people, especially young families with children, will continue to be attracted to the suburban lifestyle as too often this is the only access to good school systems. However, there is still room for houses with back yards in the New Urbanist vision. New Urbanism includes as one its principles the idea of  traditional town planning that provides for a discernible center and town edge, quality public space at the center, a range of densities with in a ten minute walk and “Transect Planning” as an alternative to current use based zoning. Transect planing, which is basically a cross section of a town from center to edge,  from high density to rural farmland, is described on the New Urbanism web site as follows:

Transect planning: Highest densities at town center; progressively less dense towards the edge. The transect is an analytical system that conceptualizes mutually reinforcing elements, creating a series of specific natural habitats and/or urban lifestyle settings.  The Transect integrates environmental methodology for habitat assessment with zoning methodology for community design.  The professional boundary between the natural and man-made disappears, enabling environmentalists to assess the design of the human habitat and the urbanists to support the viability of nature. This urban-to-rural transect hierarchy has appropriate building and street types for each area along the continuum.

This approach is form based, and creates zones that are defined by density, rather that use, and thus allows more diversity of use with in various neighborhoods.  If you want a large yard you can have one, out toward the edge of town. If you want a flat with no yard work you can have that also. Want a garage apartment to rent out for extra income? That would be OK as well. The grand kids might live within walking (or biking)  distance, because the town will not be segregated by house size, age or incomes. Ideally, a public transit system ties numerous walkable towns together into one metro area. Thus, new urbansim provides more living choices, more diversity and more of a sense of community than the single use zoning that dominates American suburbs today.

In summary, New Urbanism can provide an attractive alternative to the age controlled Senior Living Communities we see springing up. A walkable community means a more  healthy lifestyle, and appeals to  many of my generation, as well as young urban professionals. While many folks with young children will continue to prefer single family homes with some play space, they can still live within walking distance of schools, stores, workplaces and transit.  As we age, many people of my generation hope to be more active than our parents were and  to remain so for much longer. Thus, they will be attracted to new urban developments that offer these options. (Attention Developers).

This presents some new opportunities to developers as our population ages. As more and more developers embrace the traditional town approach of New Urbanism, and I see more and more of that everyday, I am hopeful we will be able to find a retirement home that is part of a real community, allowing me and my wife to maintain our  independence and our social connectivity well into our eighties.