Infrastructure & Environment

Stranded Seniors

Suburban life revolves around the car. When elderly residents are no longer able to drive, getting around gets complicated.
by | June 2006

If there's a stereotype about little old ladies riding the bus, it no longer holds true--at least not in America's sprawling suburbs. Many of today's senior citizens were the original settlers in post-World War II subdivisions, raised their families and retired there, and are every bit as dependent on the automobile as their children and grandchildren. These days, it's more likely that little old ladies have stereotypes of their own about buses or other forms of public transit: that they're dirty, dangerous and difficult to use.

That's why Denis Paddeu is at the Little River Glen senior center in the Northern Virginia suburbs one day in early May. Under the guise of a trip to the botanical garden, he is training a dozen gray-haired women how to ride Fairfax County buses: Here's the fare box. Pull the cord at your stop. The seats by the door are for you. He asks the driver to lower a hydraulic lift, designed for boarding passengers in wheelchairs. "If you ever want to use this," Paddeu tells them, "all you have to do is tell the driver you want it."

As the bus hits the highway leading to Washington, D.C., Paddeu starts an instructional video showing how to use local buses, as well as the region's subway system. "I gave up driving in 1993," comments one of the ladies, a vital 96-year-old named Erma. "You're giving up your freedom when you give up your car." Paddeu, who works for the county transportation department, wants suburban seniors to feel like they have options. "We're all so attached to our cars. It's hard for seniors to adjust to life without one," Paddeu says. "You can borrow a ride here and there, but we'd all like to take charge on our own."

Fairfax County's transit training program for elderly residents is one small response to a huge problem. Millions of seniors, having lived an auto-oriented lifestyle in the suburbs, now find themselves stranded there. The Fairfax ladies have it better than most: Their wealthy county offers fairly comprehensive public transit and paratransit service. Seniors in other suburbs aren't so lucky. And in many rural areas, public transportation is nonexistent. There is no greater barrier to independent aging than the inability of elderly folks to get around on their own.

The situation is only going to get much, much worse. As the baby boomers age, the population of people 65 and over will double--from 36 million to 72 million--by 2030. The 85-and-older population--those most likely to have to give up their car keys--will also double, from 4.7 million to 9.6 million. Most of these folks aren't headed for retirement communities in Florida or Arizona. Rather, studies show that seniors tend to "age in place" in their own homes or move in with a family member.

These changing demographics challenge conventional ideas about suburban design and service delivery in America. Local officials obsess about the number of school-age children located in their communities. But few planners can produce data on how many seniors they have, where they live or how they get around. Roads currently are built, and transit schedules are timed, to accommodate morning and afternoon rush hours. But a graying population will want to get around more in the middle of the day. The overriding assumption of the suburbs--that you shop, go out to eat or see a doctor by driving yourself--becomes untenable as soon as a person is no longer able to drive safely on his own.

Most Americans know this already--often from their own strained experience of caring for an aging parent or grandparent. Yet the way senior mobility gets discussed is backwards. For example, when an 86- year-old California man crashed into a farmer's market two years ago, killing 10 people, the ensuing debate was all about how old is too old to drive. Hardly anyone posed the more difficult question: Isn't suburban-style development also a culprit? When it comes to the difficulty of taking the car keys away from an aging senior, "we typically associate that struggle with the headstrong personality of the loved one," says Scott Ball, president of the Association for Community Design. "In fact, it's not that the elderly person is stubborn. It's that we've built communities that are not accommodating to them. Why should giving up the keys mean giving up your entire independence?"

A WAKEUP CALL

The plight of stranded seniors has become a rallying point for the "smart growth" movement. Lately, New Urbanists and transit advocates have gained new allies in the push for more walkable development patterns. The AARP, known for its political muscle on Social Security and health care, has added "livable communities" to its advocacy agenda. In a report issued last month, AARP took the unusual step of calling on localities to promote "compact mixed-use development around commuter rail stations and other public transit centers." AARP also released a guide for communities to use to evaluate their senior- friendliness. "This is a wake-up call," says Elinor Ginzler, the group's Livable Communities director. "Individuals need to assess their own situation. And communities need to recognize that they are graying quickly."

The biggest problem is the very DNA of typical suburban planning. Strict zoning codes isolate housing, shopping and other land uses so that the simplest of errands, such as picking up a loaf of bread, require wheels. Even "senior housing" is usually thought of as a distinct category to be separated from everything else, rather than integrated into the community. Age segregation isn't always obvious, but its effects are no less real. When wealthy suburbs zone a subdivision for 1-acre lots, they are effectively zoning out seniors, who don't want to maintain--or can't afford--the 4,000 square-foot homes that developers inevitably build there. "We plan projects, but we don't plan communities anymore," says Marla Hollander, director of Active Living Leadership, a San Diego-based group that consults with state and local planners. "The result is very disjointed communities where this pod is for middle-class people, this pod is for low-income people, this pod is for senior centers and this pod is for industry. None of them connect."

Consider the most extreme example of the opposite approach to planning--Manhattan. It is true that New York's high cost of living can be very hard on retirees. But in terms of mobility, one could hardly imagine a more liberating place for an older person: grocery stores, dry cleaners, hairdressers and all the other everyday services people need are always right around the corner. Even an ambitious trip out of the neighborhood, to the movies perhaps, is as simple as hailing a cab. Generations mix naturally in New York because people of all ages share the same public space.

To be sure, most American suburbs want to be anything BUT Manhattan. But some are beginning to discuss how greater density can create a more integrated, senior-friendly environment. Fairfax County, for instance, is planning for dense, mixed-use development around its Metrorail stations. The idea is to give working-age adults and seniors alike an alternative to the car-based lifestyle that Fairfax now requires. North of Atlanta, Cobb County is also beginning to change its thinking. The county's recently passed senior housing ordinance allows smaller, more affordable homes to be built among the McMansions. "Greater density and a mix of housing types creates affordable options for people of all ages," says Kathryn Lawler, an expert on aging with the Atlanta Regional Commission who helped write Cobb's zoning overlay.

RETROFITTING THE 'BURBS

These are long-term approaches to increasing senior mobility: Development patterns won't change overnight. In the short-term however, there are ways to retrofit the suburbs to make getting around a bit easier on seniors. Suburban streets can be made more walkable, for example, by installing sidewalks and benches where older pedestrians can rest. Roadway improvements that make it possible for seniors to drive safely later in life are part of the solution, too.

For example, the greatest number of car crashes involving seniors occur where quick reflexes are the most crucial: left-hand turns. Michigan is addressing this by studying 350 high-risk intersections. Engineers are adding some traffic lights and adjusting the timing at others. The state is also gradually replacing hard-to-read highway signs with new high-visibility signs written in "Clearview" font. "Highways are designed to accommodate 26-year-olds," says Audrey Straight, an AARP transportation analyst. "Older people may have reduced reaction times, but if you fix the environment to accommodate that, you're making the roads safer for everybody."

Then there's transit. Many suburban seniors rely on paratransit or other van services. Door-to-door services have their downsides, however. They typically require advance reservations; spontaneity is not an option. They're expensive to run. And their management is notoriously fragmented: The federal government funds these rides through 62 different programs. At the local level, this produces a confusing and duplicative system. A senior may need to call one van to go to the doctor but a different service to go to the grocery store.

A new federal effort called "United We Ride" is trying to rationalize these funding streams. Meanwhile, it falls on local officials to do what they can to move seniors where they need to go. Denver's efforts on this front are highly regarded. A nonprofit there called the Seniors' Resource Center coordinates a dozen different transportation modes in the metro area, everything from paratransit to volunteer drivers to taxis. The center also pools funding from more than 30 federal, local and nonprofit sources. Seniors need only call one phone number for a ride; the center's dispatchers figure out the best way to move them and who pays for it. "If they need door-to-door arm support, we have that available," says Jane Yeager, director of the center's transportation program. "But if they can get by on a cheaper mode of transportation, perhaps a volunteer driver, that's where we'll place them."

Senior transit-training programs, such as the one Denis Paddeu launched two years ago in Fairfax County, are an emerging approach. Bus rides are much cheaper to provide than door-to-door vans. And public transit, in its own way, is also more liberating: There's no need to call for a ride. But Paddeu also acknowledges that it's difficult to teach old dogs, as it were, new tricks.

Indeed, it's an open question whether the baby boomers will be any more amenable to trading their wheels for transit when they age into tomorrow's seniors. "There's a hole in the dike," Paddeu says. "And I'm plugging it with my finger."

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