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On The Map: Gentler Suburbs for Growing Old?

Monday’s New York Times profiled New York City’s effort to make itself friendlier to its burgeoning senior population. The city is already home to 1 million people age 65 and over, and is projected to add another 350,000 to that total in the next two decades.

The city’s efforts--which include public/private partnerships to help make businesses more senior-friendly, as well as infrastructure tweaks like longer lights to cross wide boulevards and more sidewalk benches--build from recommendations in the New York Academy of Medicine’s work, as well as the World Health Organization’s Age Friendly Environments Program. Linda Gibbs, the city’s Health and Human Services dynamo, is leading the charge.

Such strategies are welcome for American boomers and seniors in big metropolitan areas who live in cities. But what about the 71 percent of those individuals who live in suburbia? Indeed, suburbs today are actually somewhat older than cities, with 12.2 percent of their residents aged 65 and over, versus 11 percent in cities. 

Florida, thanks to the in-migration of older groups, is home to many of the suburban areas nationwide with the largest senior populations. (Maybe New York City could sponsor trips for its merchants to Sarasota-area supermarkets to help them better understand senior-oriented customer service?) But in many Northeastern and Midwestern metro areas, such as Scranton, Pittsburgh, Dayton, Providence, and Milwaukee, seniors already account for at least one in seven suburban residents, due primarily to the out-migration of younger groups. And while Florida’s suburbs have always had more than their share of older Americans, Snow Belt suburbs were built for generations of families with children, with big homes and big cars.

For a certain segment of well-resourced, aging boomers, the efforts of cities like New York to attract seniors with age-friendly amenities may convince them to live a more urban existence in their golden years. But that suburb-to-city flow is likely to remain quite small (see Figure 17 in this report by my colleague Bill Frey). Many more NORCs (naturally occurring retirement communities) will be found in suburbia, and will feature seniors at multiple points along the income and health distribution. A growing number of people are beginning to think about how to accommodate aging-in-place in communities built for yesterday’s demographic realities. Helping suburbs grow old gracefully will likely be an even greater challenge than in cities. Linda Gibbs’ own hometown of Menands, New York (20 percent elderly in 2000), outside of Albany, might be a great place to start….