Greater Greater Washington

Public Spaces


It Takes a Village 2: Walkable urbanism is good for seniors

Earlier this year, I wrote about how human-scale walkable urban places empower adolescents to experience the world without needing parental chauffeuring services. The same applies to seniors who have stopped driving for health or other reasons.


photo by R. Duran.

This Thanksgiving, I visited my grandparents in their new apartment in a senior community in New Jersey. Heath Village is a quiet, suburban retirement community, similar to Leisure World in Olney. My grandparents' new home is a good facility with more than adequate staffing and opportunity for recreation. It also has plenty of parking.

While all that parking is great for someone who owns a car and has a valid driver's license, what about those senior citizens who, for a variety of reasons, do not drive? When my mother and her brothers first started to help my grandparents find a smaller living space, they hoped to find a community in a town environment. My mom isn't a Smart Growth activist and transit nerd like me. She had read my previous post but hadn't really analyzed it too much. Yet she immediately thought that a walkable urban town environment would be most appropriate for my grandparents' new apartment, despite not being able to articulate why. To her, it just "seemed right."

My grandfather just bought a brand new Ford Focus and is a very competent and capable driver. My grandmother gave up driving at least 15 years ago. Even still, they have no problems living in a car-dependent place. They had lived in the car-dependent outskirts of an historic small town in Northern New Jersey since the early 1960s. Despite my mother envisioned a walkable urban town as the best environment, in the end, they couldn't find a retirement community in a town environment and chose Heath Village instead.

But what would happen if, for some reason, my grandfather couldn't drive anymore? My grandparents would be stuck. They wouldn't be able to get groceries, fill out paperwork related to their house, or go to visit anybody. I can't imagine how frustrating and depressing such a scenario would be for my them. My grandmother didn't retire until she was 90. She would not take well to being housebound. Sadly, they would be disconnected from the outside world, dependent on others to take them outside of the apartment community.

There are many senior citizens who are in such a situation. The loss of driving privileges stands between them and disconnection from the outside world. My other grandmother did not drive for most of her adult life. My grandfather always did the driving. It was how their marriage worked and how they supported each other. However, once he died, she had to learn how to drive because they lived in a very car-dependent place. She drove as little as possible, even after becoming proficient at it. It was very stressful for her. As time went on, she got out less and less. It was very sad to see from 300 miles away. I kind of think that again, a human-scale town would have been a better place for her to live out her retirement, especially after my grandfather died.

According to the National Council on Aging, suicide is more common among seniors than any other age group in the United States. Isolation is one of many possible causes of depression and suicide. What is more isolating than living in a car-dependent place alone, without access to car transportation? Seniors need stimulation, something to work on and something to look forward to just as much as anyone else. They crave a sense of belonging to a community just as much as anyone else. Most of them grew up in a human-scale walkable urban place and remember it fondly.

Rather than isolating senior citizens in a single-use pod, there should be opportunities for them to live as part of a mixed community with everyone else. Many seniors have much wisdom and experience to pass on to the rest of us. It is not possible to learn from them if they are not a part of the community but rather isolated to their own residences. Our society would be much richer both from our individual senior citizens' improved stimulation and sense of purpose, and from everyone else learning from their experience and wisdom.

Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master's in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place's form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 

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Leisure World is in Silver Spring, not Olney.

by dan reed on Nov 30, 2009 12:43 pm • linkreport

Good piece, could have done without the aside on suicide, isn't the point about an isolated lifestyle enough to drive your point?

Anyway, I think part of the problem is that urban/non-car dependent spaces are relatively rare, with relatively high demand compared to supply, driving prices higher. Seniors don't typically have a lot of money to spend on rent, and if they own a place in a high-demand area, there's a big incentive to "cash out" and move their money to somewhere cheaper, hence the lower-density car dependent areas.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 30, 2009 12:58 pm • linkreport

What does automobility have to do with the ability to "fill out paperwork"?

by spookiness on Nov 30, 2009 3:04 pm • linkreport

Leisure World is in Rossmore. Nobody calls it "Rossmore", they call the area "Leisure World". If I had to give another name for the area, "Aspen Hill" or "Norbeck" would be it. It's near Olney, but not in it.

The Post Office calls it Silver Spring - but nobody likes them anyway. The Silver Spring CBD is closer to Arlington than to Leisure World.

by Squalish on Nov 30, 2009 3:35 pm • linkreport

spookiness, I should have been clearer that the paperwork pertains to my grandfather's specific situation.

by Cavan on Nov 30, 2009 4:07 pm • linkreport

You have a good point but what about before there were automobiles people still lived in the middle of nowhere and still now some people want

(fresh air, no noise, open space, no neighbors, no trains/cars/trucks, no clubs/stadiums/arenas (traffic & noise), crowds of young people acting like fools (teens & adults in their 20's)

There is no reason why seniors cant live in the city or surrounding areas but many problems occur from where to live and distance of residence to everything else.

There used to be a lot more senior centers around the area but they get pushed out a lot of the time due to development and others wanting the land.

All areas within city limits don't need to be like downtown and there could be areas that are like suburbs but with the convinecies of a city and should be to give people a choice.

For people giving up driving thats there choice and people should always have a what if scenario ready.

I would like to see a place where people can use nothing but transit but there isn't one on the planet there is no city where there is great transit in all parts.

by Kk on Nov 30, 2009 8:36 pm • linkreport

Good post -- and the same general point could be made about people with disabilities. When the walkable urbanism types in Silver Spring raised heck about plans for a pedestrian bridge as part of the new library, advocates for the bridge claimed that the disabled would be harmed if they had to walk across the street to the library from the multi-story parking garage on the other side of Wayne Avenue. They claimed Wayne is too dangerous to cross on foot, especiall for the diabled (and they mentioned the elderly, too, for good measure). But what about people (disabled and non-disabled) who are trying to cross Wayne to reach destinations other than the library? The advocates for the bridge did not seem concerned about how these folks. If the street is so dangerous, shouldn't we be providing a safe crossing instead of abandoning the street level to cars? I believe that at least some of the pro-bridge folks really think they were doing the right thing for the elderly and disabled, but they failed to recognize that it's in everybody's interests to make streets safe to cross on foot (or with a walker or in a wheelchair).

by Casey Anderson on Nov 30, 2009 10:51 pm • linkreport

When I lived in Philadelphia, I had some friends we would occasionally visit in another neighborhood. They told us that their senior citizen neighbors--as far as they knew--had not ventured out of walking distance from their modest home in years. Everything they needed they could walk to, and that's what they did. Their children and grandchildren came to them for visits.
They also had access to transit, but according to my friends, all they did was stay in the immediate neighborhood.
Granted, they lived in a home--not a retirement community, but places exist where one can do this.

by Steve O on Dec 1, 2009 12:09 am • linkreport

100% right on. This is one of the least spoken of side effects of our car-pod development culture. We are all going to be there one day (hopefully) so why don't we speak up for the elderly now! Oh yeah, if it's not flashy and new we hate it. In Europe where there's still some respect for the elderly, you'll see them habging around public spaces telling misbehaving kids to straighten up. It's amazing what we'd do for our society if we "matched up" the seniors with the young kids who's parents are too busy working to hold it all together.

by Thayer-D on Dec 1, 2009 7:15 am • linkreport

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