Aging in place: Connectivity key for successful communities

single-meta-cal March 28, 2018

They’re as drastically different as, well, smartphones and rotary dial, as Instagram and snail-mail. But they are the two largest developing demographics in Huntsville, the Millennials and the Baby Boomers.

Funny thing.

As City of Huntsville planners began surveying and listening to local residents about The BIG Picture and the future of the city, the two groups shared a common bond. They want to live in the same places.

A light bulb went off for us. Two very different demographics, but the same things high on their priority list.”

“Listening and talking to them, it was so shocking that they wanted the same things, really,” says Connie Graham, a City Planner who specializes in aging-in-place planning.

“The seniors said, ‘I know it’s just around the corner and I’m not quite ready to give up my car, but I would love to take a greenway or a sidewalk to run a few errands,’” she continues. “And the millennials said, ‘We don’t own cars. We want places to walk to or ride public transportation or our bicycles.’

“A light bulb went off for us. Two very different demographics, but the same things high on their priority list.”

In its long-range planning, the City of Huntsville is developing strategies and relationships to assure a robust future for both groups.

Senior population growing, but not slowing

The number of Americans 65 years and older is expected to double by the middle of the century. It will be more than one-fifth of the population.

It is a demographic that is interested in remaining active, not stopping. It wants convenience and recognizes limitations. Like its millennial counterparts, it’s being drawn toward city-center, for proximity to shopping, health care and other needs. It’s downsizing from big two-story homes to more manageable space.

“Empty-nesters like the idea of downtown because there’s less home to take care of, and when they do need something taken care of, there is an apartment manager. And things are very accessible to them,” says Dennis Madsen, the Director of Long-Range Planning for the City of Huntsville.

This brings new challenges and opportunities for developers and homebuilders.

“You’re starting to see more developers build aging-friendly housing,” says Madsen. “People want the opportunity to downsize, but haven’t had the opportunity to find a smaller home or more accessible home, but they don’t want to leave a neighborhood they may have known for 20 or 30 or 40 years.”

City helps secure federal dollars for development

Aging in place can often be more difficult for low- to middle-income residents. Though they may have spent decades in the same house and the mortgage is paid off, day-to-day expenses can be too burdensome.

Neighborhood Concepts Inc. has worked with the City of Huntsville’s Community Development Department to obtain federal funding for an investment partnership in two multi-family developments targeted to seniors, Clarkston Square, near Grissom High, and Franklin Hills, near Oakwood University.

According to Mary Ellen Judah, the executive director for Neighborhood Concepts, the developments “provide the chance to stay in Huntsville, to keep the connections they have with family and friends and doctors but with less of a financial burden.”

The facilities offer various residents’ services and social opportunities “so we can create a sense of community,” she said. “Seniors can easily become isolated and disconnected, but activities encourage more social interactivity and genuine connection.”

What is the City’s role?

Is the City of Huntsville – or any municipal government – trapped in a position where it can merely react to the challenges, or can it lead the way in the ease of aging in place?

Madsen and Graham truly believe it is the latter.

“We can definitely be proactive in terms of working with developers to encourage more senior-friendly houses,” Madsen says.

As Graham notes, “Different zoning issues can come into play.”

That might mean allowing multi-family housing in a traditionally single-family area, or permitting limited commercial development that serves the residents.

There are other ways, simply within the growth plan and the day-to-day operation of the City, that it can further benefit an easier aging-in-place generation. Transportation is a major facet of that, “with more connectivity where they don’t have to get in their car,” Graham says.

Many of the steps suggested by  Madsen and Graham come from the listening to seniors (and millennials) at numerous public meeting in which residents’ input was requested to help formulate Huntsville’s BIG Picture master plan.

  • More “senior-friendly” activities at Huntsville Parks & Recreation facilities. Madsen points to the rising popularity of “Pickleball,” a variation of tennis and badminton played on a smaller court
  • Exercise equipment in City parks that is geared toward seniors
  • More comfortable walking environments in neighborhoods that offer light exercise and health benefits
  • Continued development of the greenway system, including more connectivity to retail, commercial and restaurants via the greenways
  • Increased police presence
  • More public transit options
  • Better libraries

“We haven’t always recognized that seniors have different needs, and cities like us that have infrastructures that rely on driving aren’t necessarily as senior-friendly,” Madsen says. “But the numbers remind us of the challenge, and we are listening and, more importantly, responding.”