The True Cost of Aging in Place

ecohealthIt is unsettling to think that aging-in-place can compromise your health. But, over the long run, it might. When Boomers wake up to the true cost of staying put, aging in suburbia may become an anachronism, a relic from their old, unhealthy days.

Twenty years ago, the Boomer mantra was to settle in safe, child-friendly neighborhoods. The mantra is changing as aging Boomers seek neighborhoods that will increase their activity levels, decrease stress, and help them stay “wellderly (well+ elderly) longer.

Keeping “wellderly” is not a new aspiration. Boomers like to think that they are healthy and, as a generation, they have embraced active lifestyles, gym memberships, and organic/healthy food choices. More than 1 in 3 say that they have a regular exercise schedule and the fastest-growing age group purchasing health club members are those age 55+.

BOOMERS AND HEALTH DATA

Despite this outward embrace, the wellness outcomes are not positive. Boomers are less healthy than the generation before them. (Some of this may be a reporting issue- as health data is now more carefully monitored). A 2006 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study found the psychiatric rate to be 21 percent among Boomers, compared with eight percent for the previous cohort. It was also found that 60% of 51 to 56 year old Boomer men born from 1948 to 1953 had chronic health problems, compared with 53% of the cohort born from 1936 to 1941 at the same ages. The Boomer generation is more likely than their parents to suffer from obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

The sobering statistic is that only 13 percent of Baby Boomers reported being in excellent health compared with 32% of those in the previous generation, and 52 percent of Boomers said they got no regular physical activity compared with 17% of their parents at the same age.

This is a generation that smokes less than their parents and has access to more comprehensive medical care, so what is going on?

SEDENTARY HABITS TAKE THEIR TOLL

The likely culprit is that Boomers are more sedentary- they walk less and drive more. Workers in the U.S. have an average commute time of 50 + minutes, shopping is spread out over a small number of superstores serving a bigger region, and, 2009 travel data estimates Americans make, on average, 470 car trips to stores each year. In other large economies, like Germany, car transportation is less ingrained in everyday activities, so seniors walk and bike more and that keeps their weight off. Sitting in cars is not good for the waistline: in fact, the most obese workers in the US are in the transportation industry- truck drivers, followed by bus drivers, and the like. But, time spent in cars does not tell the full story. Baby Boomers are often obsese  and have high cholesterol because of their life-styles and food choices.

IS IT HEALTHY TO AGE-IN-SUBURBIA?

If the Baby Boomers choose to age-in-place in suburbia, they will eventually come head to head” with their lifestyle choices. Although they plan to drive to the gym or yoga class, or do miles on an indoor running track, these recreational activities are seldom sustained over the longer run. Experts on aging-in-place foresee the ability to order things in, and have robotic help. But, staying indoors is likely to contribute to waistline woes, and fuel depression and anxiety.

So, the Baby Boomers will be facing-up to the health consequences of choosing to age-in-place. Aging consultants like to insist that modifying the home- things like installing grab bars, non-slip surfaces, and extra lighting will be the panacea. Literally, this is a bill of goods. The real need, for self-sufficiency, independence, and exercise- must take place at the neighborhood level. When health becomes the priority- it will hold more sway than keeping the now-empty family home and perhaps be more coveted than vacations, luxury cars, and appetizing restaurant meals.

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