The coronavirus epidemic has highlighted the importance of place in our lives. Certain countries have been able to contain the outbreak and lower fatality risks associated with the disease. Others have not. In the U.S., we have seen a wide range of outcomes within regions, states and metropolitan areas. In a number of respects, our individual health has had more to do with where we live than how well we practice social distancing.
Places, like people, are not static. They change. Sometimes imperceptibly, other times more obviously. Sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. And, given the fact that where you live matters, ensuring that you are in a spot appropriate for you, particularly as you age, may not be a simple exercise.
Uncertainty of Urban Environments
Take urban environments. I have a friend in her 70s living in the Northeast, who traded a bucolic, suburban lifestyle for an active, urban one. Her suburban life required a car, and she felt socially isolated as she increasingly knew fewer of her neighbors. Her move into a downtown apartment allowed her to walk to various amenities and regularly participate in social events, including seeing nearby friends and family.
Then covid hit. Her place changed dramatically. She has been confined to her apartment and has been unable to meet new acquaintances or see friends and family. She has also felt less safe, with protesting and riots near her home.
While these current conditions may be temporary until the epidemic subsides, there may be lasting changes to urban environments that make living there less compelling. Remote work has been surprisingly productive. Most large companies have not seen any productivity loss and more than quarter have reported a productivity increase. Researchers speculate that nearly half of companies may allow as many as 40% of their employees who switched to remote work during the pandemic to continue doing so after the crisis, at least in part. Fewer workers downtown may result in less congestion, but it also translates to less demand for restaurants and various amenities that help create the energy of cities, as well as a critical loss of tax revenue for city services.
Safety may become a greater issue for cities, too. For years, crime has fallen dramatically in the U.S. Since 1993, crime in urban environments has fallen nearly 60%. However, in 2020, there has already been a noticeable uptick in crime in various large cities across the country. No doubt, recent rioting contributes to these figures, and this activity may be more of a moment in time than a trend. However, as author and urban studies professor Joel Kotkin points out, “Safety is a prerequisite for urban growth. I can’t see how cities can thrive if they’re unsafe.” Safety, even just its perception, is perhaps even more important as we age.
Given these challenges, coupled with the high cost of living in large cities, more people may opt to live in smaller cities or more dense suburban areas that provide some of the urban lifestyle benefits but without some of the current drawbacks of larger urban environments.
Places Where Healthy Aging is Getting Easier
If certain urban areas may be getting more difficult, where is it getting easier? The network of age-friendly states and communities can be a guide. There are nearly 500 communities covering nearly 1/3 of the country that have signed up for a process to make themselves age-friendly through an assessment, planning, implementation and evaluation. This process can lead to a number of potentially valuable interventions, ranging from better transportations options, improved housing and more age-friendly infrastructure in general, including dedicated walking and biking areas.
Places where healthy aging is getting easier tend to benefit from strong political leadership and available resources for older adults. Cities with strained budgets or other high priority issues, including public safety, may simply not have the bandwidth to make their places work better for an aging population. The Milken Institute’s Mayor’s Pledge is encouraging civic leaders to commit to purposeful, healthy aging at the metropolitan level and is another resource to identify leading places.
Springfield, MA, a city with a population of about 150,000, is an interesting example of a city that is operating on all cylinders as an attractive place for older people. In this case, a mayor is helping to create a momentum for the city and bring together various stakeholders. It is the first city to complete the age-friendly trifecta: Age-Friendly City, Age-Friendly Health System and Dementia-Friendly city.
Pay attention. See what’s happening in your current environment. If it is becoming better as you age, appreciate your good fortune. If it the environment is getting more difficult, see what you can do to mitigate its effects. It may even become an opportunity to get to know your neighbors better. As crime became a greater concern in our old neighborhood, neighbors banded together to walk the streets and create a text thread for regular communication. This intervention helped.
If you are considering a move to a new place, it is valuable not just to get a sense of how it is today but, perhaps more importantly, in what ways is it changing and how quickly. It is also worth considering how sensitive a new place could be to sudden changes, such as with pandemics and climate change. This research is well worth doing.
We’ve learned a lot from the pandemic. It’s been a reminder of the importance of place. But it’s also a reminder of how our places can change for the worse, and quickly. Best to be prepared.
Ryan is an expert speaker in the aging industry. Want to have Ryan speak at your event? Find out more.
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