Communities for a Lifetime

Indiana’s Communities for a Lifetime bill is advancing through the General Assembly. With unanimous approval from the Senate Local Government Committtee, the bill passed to the Senate floor, passed there and has passed first House reading. One can visit the Indiana General Assembly website to view the legislation (Senate Bill 023) and follow its progress. I had the privilege of providing testimony at the Local Government committee on Feb. 11.

In a related editorial to the Indianapolis Star, I argue that we can wait no longer to being planning communities that work across the lifespan…

Is Indiana “Aging-ready?”

… we can wait no longer to begin serious planning to meet the needs and aspirations of the baby boom generation. The boom has sounded. Every day sees the entry of 10,000 individuals to the ranks of 65+ in the United States.

Doubtless, many are already tired of the explosion of articles, reports, and books on the baby boom and what it means for the nation. Some would argue, with economist Peter Peterson, that the demographic changes threaten the very fabric of our society, bringing about a bleak “Gray Dawn.” Others, such as author Marc Freedman, see the growing population of older adults as a vast, untapped treasure of talent and human capital, a golden opportunity, if we act wisely. None would argue, however, that the changes will have no impact on the status quo. Rather than wait to see what happens, why not plan for both the challenges and the opportunities ahead of us?

As for challenges, the reality is… we age. Our physical reserve capacity diminishes, our risk for disability increases. Large numbers of us will develop Alzheimer’s.  Many of us will develop age-related hearing and vision losses. Of course, many boomers hold out hope they can stave off disability and “square the curve” – avoid a long decline and stay robust till a “quick ending.” More power to them. Indeed, the fitness and nutrition craze, along with remarkable new medicines to control blood pressure and lower cholesterol, will enable many to enjoy more years of health than previous generations. Ironically, this puts a greater number of people at risk for Alzheimer’s and, combined with the sheer absolute numbers of those who don’t maintain health, will still challenge the systems of health and supportive services. Moreover, adults with developmental disabilities are, happily, living longer than ever before. As much of the public cost associated with health care for the elderly is directed towards institutions (both hospitals and long term care facilities), we must bend the arc of support in Indiana towards home and community based care. This is to say that aging is not simply a personal challenge, nor a medical problem to be solved by experts, but a community challenge.

Many communities throughout Indiana have begun to think creatively and collectively about what makes a good place to grow up and grow old. When describing their vision of a “community for a lifetime”, residents talk about walkable environments and mixed-use zoning. They envision new forms of housing such as shared housing, accessory units, downtown senior housing, and elder-cottages. They are innovating forms of association such as cooperatives providing supportive services through volunteer time-banks built upon inter-generational relationships. Municipal leaders seek local economies that don’t spin out young people and families, losing both the privileges and benefits of reciprocal exchanges between the elders of the family and community.

 There will never be a pill for old age. The destiny of both the young and the old will be determined by our ability to create sustainable, livable cities and towns. Current thinking, reflected in the new federal partnership established between HUD, the Dept. of Transportation, and the EPA, suggests that planning for sustainable communities will cut across the traditional lines we’ve drawn when making housing, transportation and land- use decisions. Moreover, to meet the need for creative solutions, planning must become more participative. To understand and sustain the heart and soul of Hoosier cities and towns residents of all ages and abilities must be engaged in the process. Yes, Indiana’s future may be gray. And gray is good.

 By Philip B. Stafford, Ph.D.

Director, Center on Aging and Community, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community

Indiana University

Adjunct Professor, Dept. of Anthropology and author of Elderburbia: Aging with a Sense of Place in America (Praeger, 2009)