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Seniors: Walkability Benefits for an Aging Public

Baby boomers are retiring in droves in an unprecedented American demographic shift. The last Baby Boomer turns 65 in 2030, so we still have two decades of an aging chunk of the public. A growing body of research points to the importance of designing or retrofitting communities for walkability to accommodate senior citizens and allow them to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle upon retirement. Walkable neighborhoods help seniors remain active, healthy, social and free to move around. How?

1. Quality of Life While Aging in Place

Many retirees choose to age in place—to avoid moving and remain in their homes as long as possible. But since baby boomers were the generation that built suburbia, many will want to maintain a quality of life in unwalkable neighborhoods.

Older adults socialize more when living in walkable neighborhoods. According to the EPA, in an age-friendly walkable neighborhood or town, regular social interaction is possible, convenient and more frequent. The American Journal of Public Health published a study published a study that reveals older people living in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods have higher levels of social interaction compared with those residing in car-dependent burbs. Living in walkable neighborhoods means you are more likely to know your neighbors, participate in politics, engage socially and even trust people.

2. Transportation + Mobility to Leave the House

Independence builds self-worth and being able to move around your neighborhood is freeing. “More than 20 percent of Americans age 65 or older do not drive. Of those, more than half — about 3.6 million people — stay home on any given day because they have no transportation, AARP says,” from a Washington Post article. Men outlive their “drive-ability” by 7 years, women by 10 years. Public transit becomes key for allowing seniors to remain independent. “A 2002 study by the National Institute on Aging found that about 600,000 people who are 70 or older stop driving every year and become dependent on other forms of transportation.”

A 2003 Brookings Institution study found that 79% of seniors age 65 and older live in car-dependent suburban and rural communities. But older adults increased their use of public transit by 40% between 2001 and 2009. About 15% of those over age 65 use public transit at least once time per month and more than half of them need specialized transportation, according to Placemaking article.

AARP’s report Advancing Mobility Options states, “One of the keys to economic and health security for adults age 50+ is their continued access to a range of viable mobility options within the community. Lack of such options can have a profound impact on how ‘livable’ communities are and have a negative impact on the quality of life enjoyed by older adults in those communities.” Public transportation boosts mobility of seniors. The Street used Walk Score to determine 10 cities where you can retire without having to use a car—around the country from Seattle to Miami.

3. Control Your Own Schedule

Being able to create your own schedule and meet people to socialize, shop when you want or get out of the house means living a life you want in retirement. The less one has to depend on others, the more freedom you can enjoy. The EPA’s Growing Smarter report highlights, “Having the choice to get to downtown shopping or cultural events on our own terms and schedule, rather than waiting for a friend or an on-call van can ensure independent living for much longer.”

Don’t think you have to worry about this? Imagine one day getting a call from your mom who says, “My doctor doesn’t think I should drive.” Fast forward a couple decades later and imagine your own eyesight gets worse, coordination and reflexes stall and you, too, need to find an alternate to a car. All of us will someday find we should no longer be driving and rely on public transportation. Let’s plan for it now for all ages of people.

4. New Trend – Active Seniors Stay Active Longer / Renewed Sense of Purpose

Don Dillon of Pennsylvania, now age 75, picked up the hobby of disk golf six years ago and slowly integrated himself into the sport. His hobby turned into a life goal as he eventually worked to win a Professional Disc Golfing Association world champion title for his age range. Aside from the active nature of the sport, Dillon found a new challenge in life that kept him going, “…a reason to get up in the morning.” He founded and chairs the association’s senior committee to get more retirees into the sport.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that only 32.5 percent of Americans over the age of 65 don’t have regular physical activity. That means more seniors than ever desire an active lifestyle and seek opportunities to stay active. Living in a walkable neighborhood gives options for walking right out your front door.

5. Adopt a Walkable, Healthy Lifestyle and Live Longer

People living to 100 years of age are increasing in the US. There were 96,548 centenarians in 2009, up from 38,300 in 1990, according to the Census Bureau. A Swedish study of identical twins separated at birth who grew up apart concluded only about 20 to 30 percent of longevity is determined by genes. Lifestyle is a more dominant ingredient.

Health benefits abound for those who walk, especially for people older than 50. Physical activity may actually add years to your life. Elderly adults who walk are less likely to suffer mental deterioration or dementia, based on a Pittsburgh University study. Walk Score’s Top 10 Health Benefits of Walking are especially valuable to seniors.

6. Urban Planners: Walkable Cities for Seniors = Walkable Cities for All

Cities leading the way in planning for universal walkability for “lifelong communities” and our aging population include New York City, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Portland. Most cities are built for the young and other cities will need to play catch-up. “It’s shocking how far behind we are, especially when you think about this fact – that if you make something age-friendly, that means it is going to be friendly for people of all ages, not just older adults,” said Margaret Neal of Portland State University’s Institute on Aging.

A 2002 survey by AARP Public Policy Institute found that people over age 50 listed lack of walkability part of barriers to walking. “Older adults perceive poor sidewalks, the absence of resting places and dangerous intersections as barriers to walking.” Likewise, a 2007 study in the American Journal of Public Health found areas with higher walkability scores were linked with older residents doing more walking for exercise.

Allen Glicksman, director of research and evaluation at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, says government programs, such as Medicaid and Medicare, “largely ignore one big part of the health equation: neighborhood.” A walkable environment benefits seniors, keeping mind and body healthy through their surroundings and neighborhood.

7. Economic Impact of Seniors Living in Walkable Places

Auto insurance. Car payments. Mechanics and maintenance. Gas that guzzles your money. Retirement means living on a fixed income for the vast majority of seniors and car-related expenses take a bigger chunk of retirees’ money than for working adults. A car can end up being a large drain on finances.

Living on a fixed income makes owning an automobile challenging and increases the need for affordable alternatives. AAA reports in “Your Driving Costs 2011” that the average annual cost of owning an automobile and driving between 10,000 and 15,000 miles ranges from $7,600 to $8,700. These estimates were based on an average fuel cost of only $2.88 per gallon. Imagine what those costs are today and how they will spiral. See Transportation for America’s report Aging in Place, Stuck without Options: Fixing the Mobility Crisis Threatening the Baby Boomer Generation for more information.

Now what? Prepare for life ahead. What to do when grandma, dad, your sibling or yourself want independence after retirement so you can age in a home comfortably? Choose a walkable neighborhood or city using Walk Score. Find the Transit Score or transportation alternatives (car shares, publis bus, train) near any address.

Check out Assisted Living Source’s Top 100 Walkable Communities where assisted living facilities are listed by their Walk Score.

Photo: EPA

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