As Boomers get older they will do anything to preserve their health …and that may include moving. Aging in suburbia will not be the healthiest place to get old. So, even though Boomers say that they plan to stay in their suburban homes “forever” the health impacts may drive them out.
It is not the environmental factors that will drive the Boomers to leave their unhealthy homes: i.e, not contaminated drinking water, toxic chemicals, or mold. The impacts of aging in suburbia are subtler, but they impact the quality of everyday life, aging healthy, and keeping connected.
In Aging in Suburbia (the book), we deplore how modern suburbs have been designed to serve cars first, people second. If people wish to exercise, they often drive to the gym or to places they can stroll or bike. Getting daily exercise become a struggle for older people, when it should just be part of the everyday routine, as in most other countries . The ability to move around without a car is part of the reason that aging in suburbia can be sub-optimal for older people, but it is only part of the story.
ZONING AND SUBURBIA
We begin with some historical underpinnings: Kunstler (The Geography of Nowhere, p. 55, 1993) writes that before zoning was introduced around 1916, factories could spring up anywhere. Manufacturing facilities were associated with billowing smokestacks, polluted water, and extensive noise. Urban areas teemed with crowded housing conditions and were plagued by sanitation issues and public health epidemics. So, it is not surprising that the wealthier people, those with means, moved out. For a long time, suburbs have been the gateway to a healthier locale with cleaner air, open space, and quiet.
Fast forward- a hundred years, and the health factors are in reverse. Western cities have resolved their smokestack and water conditions. Many have also evolved as meccas for safe, efficient public transportation, and walkable ped and bike zones.
It is the people who packed up and moved to the suburbs that face new public health issues. A plume of tailpipe emissions, associated with asthma and lung disease, emanates from the transportation sector in suburbia. Public health epidemics, like high blood pressure and obesity are associated with the car-dependent lifestyles of suburbia. And, stress and “rage” seem to be linked to some suburban excesses. For more on health impacts, see Jeff Speck’s 2012 book “Walkable City.”
One of the health issues that is less transparent is the peace and tranquility of individual homes. Suburban houses may be set far apart, with their expansive driveways and leafy lawns. They do afford privacy and quiet. But, for older people these amenities come with a price tag– the price of mowing the lawn, DIY house maintenance, and, in some areas, snow removal.
Until the electric vehicle becomes widespread, quiet may be the one characteristic that cities and denser areas cannot provide. When people live closer in more settled areas, it will be noisier. People may say they prize the quiet, but that is not necessarily a virtue for aging well. “Quiet” also equates with distance, lack of mobility, and social isolation. “Quiet” may be the downfall of people who age-in-place and gradually loose their involvement with the outside world.
When Boomers wake up to the own aging, and consider the pros and cons of aging in place, there may be an exodus away from leafy, suburban homes. When the realities of old age kick in, there is little that people won’t do to stay healthier and live longer. So, expect aging-in-suburbia to move on, so to speak. Meanwhile, there could between 26 and 40 million properties in suburbia that come on the market by 2030 and impact real-estate values (see Aging in Suburbia, p37, citing A. Nelson). Financial health will be another RX issue for the Boomers, but not their primary one.