For Lila Sanger, 88, the sound of retirement isn’t the quiet countryside but the roar of traffic. She lives in the dense Ballston neighborhood right over the line from Washington D.C. and likes the hustle of the city and her ability to get around without a car. She moved to Ballston from a D.C. exurb that she says did little to cater to older adults. “Compared to that, this is heaven,” she says.
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City leaders and planners around the country are hoping to convince future retirees to think like her. In this decade, the population aged 65 and over will grow by 36 percent to almost 55 million, according to Census Bureau projections. It’s not just that there are a greater proportion of older Americans—people are also living longer: In 2011, the 65-74 age group was about 10 times larger than in 1900, but the 85+ group was 40 times larger. As baby boomers retire in droves, cities big and small are doing what they can to lure them, or keep those they have, by redesigning their services and infrastructure.
That’s partly because retiring boomers wield enormous economic clout. By 2017, the U.S. adult population age 50 and older will control 70 percent of the country’s disposable income.
Even before boomers started retiring, studies in several states showed that in-migrating retirees can help lift local economies. A 2006 study in Georgia, for example, estimated that if the state had held onto just 10 percent of its migrating retirees in 2007, it would have experienced significant growth in jobs, personal and disposable income, and net state revenues. And a 2011 study in South Carolina found that an influx in retirees in two counties was associated with wage growth, a rise in home values, job growth, and higher rents.
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With that in mind, the competition among cities for retiree dollars is heating up. States like Mississippi, Texas, and North Carolina have set up programs to designate cities and towns that meet certain criteria—such as offering quality medical care and recreational opportunities for seniors—as “certified retirement communities.” Ten cities are making changes required to qualify for AARP’s list of “age-friendly communities.” Bloomington, Indiana is designing a “Lifetime Community District” that has retiree-friendly features like access to transportation, basic and preventive health care, and other services. Other jurisdictions are launching their own marketing campaigns—Lawrence, Kansas for example, is budgeting $60,000 to $80,000 a year for an advertising blitz to convince retirees to settle there.
One focus of planners’ efforts is helping older adults get out and make connections, which is especially important for retirees who have moved away from family and friends. The Chamber of Commerce in Oxford, Mississippi, one of the state’s certified retirement cities, came up with a “newcomer’s club” that holds monthly events for relocated retirees and others, says Margaret Wylde of ProMatura, a market research firm specializing in consumers age 50-plus. In Auburn Hills, Michigan, the city’s recreation department and department of senior services are collaborating to get older adults out with concerts, potlucks, and fishing competitions, says Auburn Hills’ senior services director Karen Adcock.
Cities also are redesigning transportation systems to meet the needs of older adults who have hung up their car keys or want to. In a 2010 AARP survey, about half of adults age 45 or older said living in a place where it’s easy to walk or living near church or social organizations was important to them. In the Rockville Pike corridor outside Washington D.C., for example, planners are clustering housing units around transit hubs, tearing down large retail spaces in malls, and rebuilding them closer to the street to make them pedestrian friendly, says AARP’s Amy Levner.
In cities like Philadelphia, it also means they’re doing basics like making sure buses are handicap-accessible and putting roofs on bus stops so riders can get out of the rain. Other cities are creating districts with wider sidewalks and where traffic signals have been slowed to allow older adults more time to cross. Many merchants have also agreed to widen aisles and put out benches, says John McIlwain of the Urban Land Institute. New York City and Charlotte, North Carolina are using school buses to transport older people to shopping destinations after the buses have finished taking children to school.
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Other cities are focusing on better services. In Auburn Hills, the city set up a senior home repair assistance program that uses volunteers to do home repairs and provide services for older adults, like yard maintenance, painting, and fixing faucets—recipients have to pay for supplies but not the services, and the program has no income restrictions.
With more older adults wanting to keep working, city and county agencies and nonprofits in Miami are holding workshops for employers to encourage them to hire older adults and are planning how to use city parks to offer senior-targeted fitness programs. Some cities are ditching the old model of senior center services by turning the centers into hubs for skills development—they’re putting in broadband and offering computer training and entrepreneurship programs, says McIlwain.
Jurisdictions also are preparing for the coming retiree wave by changing their building codes. For some new construction, Atlanta and Tucson are requiring wider doorways and hallways, no-step entrances, and reinforced walls so that grab bars can be added. Cities also are changing their zoning codes to allow homeowners to add small apartments where their parents might live, says McIlwain.
While the most popular urban magnets for retirees still lie in the country’s warmer latitudes, cities like New York and Philadelphia hope their efforts will help them better compete as retiring boomers decide where to live. Along the way, improvements like better transportation hubs and walkability, says Levner, will benefit not just those 65-plus, but everyone.