Recently, I took advantage of an opportunity to attend a talk about elders. The speaker mentioned how difficult it is to carry on a conversation with elders because their conversations twist and turn, and they repeat themselves. She also discussed the special problems presented by wheelchairs and walkers, and how medication affects alertness and cognition. The speaker told the truth, but not the whole truth. She probably doesn’t know the whole truth.
The whole truth is that “elders” are a diverse group. Some have exceptional medical needs and some do need places like assisted living or a skilled nursing facility. However, many of the disabilities we witness in older adults are lifestyle consequences rather than normal aging. There are also chronic illnesses that take a long time to develop. Unfortunately, most of us gather our information about aging from limited personal experience and poor images in the media. Most of that information tells us that aging is our period of decline and old people are mostly useless. Indeed aging has become very medicalized, which is why America has more nursing homes than McDonald’s.
Rather than a universal time of decline and suffering, aging really can be a time for continued personal, emotional and spiritual development. Indeed, older adults are a valuable part of the community and have a lot to offer.
The view that Falls Church takes towards older adults will have an impact on how Falls Church develops as a community. Adopting a positive view of aging and incorporating that view into planning the City’s future could have positive social, cultural, and economic benefits for the City.
Recent studies have found that new retirees are less likely to make a big move south than in the past. Part of that is the housing market, part is financial and part is the changing nature of the “retiree.” The first wave of the “Baby Boomers,” that group born between 1946 and 1964, are finding their way to the Social Security and Medicare offices. And true to their paradigm-breaking past, they are going to do retirement their way. Among the Boomers there is a cohort who wants to stay close to a city, have the opportunity for part time jobs, and share their skills with community and non-profit groups, and live in smaller homes.
Falls Church has a lot to offer new retirees as well as older adults in general and they have a good deal to offer the city. The Little City has a great sense of community, easy access to DC and its cultural scene, a cultural scene of its own, a wonderful matrix of non-profit groups and plenty of small and start-up businesses that can benefit from having a seasoned employee on hand who is not looking to “climb the ladder.”
The challenge for city planners is to figure out how to look at the needs of an aging population and incorporate those needs into the planning process. Some of it is simple and will encourage all residents to participate in community life such as minimizing the use of stairs. Issues like the residential-commercial mix in new developments will likely be more difficult to incorporate, but having adequate housing stock for older adults is going to be important. The housing stock should include a house that is two thousand square feet or less, has two bedrooms, maybe a den, on one level with grab bars, hard surface floors, and wide doorways. Such items are good for people of all ages. And, it should be within walking distance of shops and restaurants.
In addition to the traditional housing notions, the City may wish to consider ideas like making sure its zoning is friendly to new or different kinds of community development. Cohousing comes to mind and Falls Church is the perfect place for a cohousing community. Recently, I was talking to a couple who along with four or five other couples would like to live in the same condo so they can support each other as they age. They didn’t know it but they are looking for a cohousing community.
Economically, targeting the 65 plus demographic grows the taxpaying population without burdening the education system. Additionally, they will support local merchants by shopping locally and providing a dependable part-time work force. Cultural institutions will benefit from the accumulated experience older adults can share. And our children will benefit because they will not grow up believing the stereotypes presented by those with a declinist point of view.
Encouraging older adults to Falls Church is a way to grow our human capital.
Gary Hughes is an agent with Weichert Realtors, managing partner of Hansen-Hughes, LLC and serves on the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.