Boom Towns

Building communities for aging people.

[Guest blogger Alan DeLaTorre is a PhD candidate at Portland State University who studies urban planning and aging.]

Aging AmericaIn 2011, the first Boomer will turn 65, an occasion that will herald an epochal demographic shift.  Just as babies boomed in the 1940s through 1960s, older adults will become North America’s—and much of the rest of the world’s—fastest-growing demographic. This imminent population shift is beginning to force a long-overdue conversation about the unique housing, environmental, and health care needs of an aging population.

Unfortunately, it’s a conversation that many of us are ill-prepared to undertake. A recent AARP study, for example, found a massive disconnect between perceptions of aging and its reality. The vast majority of people surveyed expressed optimism that they would not only be in good physical health in their later years, but that they would always be able to drive.

Can you say, “denial”?

These issues came to life for me several years ago, when my father, a California school teacher, started looking for his future retirement home in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  His criteria for the move, “I want to get away from the crowded [city] and find a place that is less hectic…somewhere I can grow things.”  At the time, I was co-teaching a class on housing and environments for older adults at Portland State University’s Institute on Aging. Every ounce of my professional training told me that his moving away from important services could become an issue for both of us. I also knew my father well: he had never grown anything in his life. So I suggested, as gently as I could, that he might want to reconsider moving away from services he’d need.

He didn’t buy it. 

My father simply couldn’t fathom the changes that age would bring to his abilities or his faculties. Even though he has never wanted to burden anyone, it was tough for him to envision the kind of decline that would lead to needing help with driving, shopping—or growing things. 

After several weeks, I shifted approaches, arguing that he needed to take his daughter (my sister) into consideration when choosing a home. She had sustained a traumatic brain injury in an automobile accident about ten years earlier. Almost immediately, his paternal instinct kicked in, and he started looking for a more accessible home that was close to important services.

My father, like many others, had trouble facing the realities that accompany normal aging, not to mention the changes that might accompany a serious illness. Yet he was fully capable of making wise decisions when it pertained to someone else.

Eventually we found a house across the street from a hospital, a half mile from a future light rail stop, with a ramp over the three stairs leading to the front door, and with plenty of room on the property to add additional square footage or an accessory dwelling unit if my sister, our family, or his friends wanted to join him in Portland.  He is still a few years from retiring and moving to the Northwest, but the experience served as an important lesson about planning for the future—and a great example for the class I was teaching.

Unfortunately, not everyone has learned those lessons—and the vital window of opportunity for planning for a rapidly aging population is closing. To help prepare, here are three things we can all start thinking about.  

First, accept that you are aging. Denying the changes that occur with normal aging will make it more difficult to plan for your future needs. If you know that you may not be able to drive forever, you’ll have a reason to learn your way around your town’s transit system, and to choose housing that is close to necessary services. If you are looking for housing where you would like to remain (e.g., especially if you’re aged 50-70), why not try examining properties with a wheelchair or walker in mind?

Second, developers, planners, and homebuyers can break away from the “Peter Pan” style of development, which assumes we’ll never grow old. Housing that works for the elderly can work for other age groups too: a home that accommodates a walker or wheelchair will also serve mothers pushing strollers and able-bodied younger people. “Visitable/visit-able” housing design can and should be incorporated into as much new and redeveloped housing as possible.  Simple features like wide doorways and hallways, at least one zero-step entrance, and an accessible bathroom on the bottom floor will begin to create housing that many people can age in and will also allow for hosting friends, families, and neighbors who are aged and/or disabled.  

Finally, we can foster innovation in housing design and development. Concepts such as co-housing and the Green House model merit further exploration; these opportunities need to be expanded to be available to those with limited and fixed incomes.  Cultivating community and facilitating environments that tap into the assets of older adults (rather than solely focusing on needs) will help create a society that supports the wisdom and worth of our older population.

We are a community-supported resource and we can’t do this work without you!



  1. Eric de Place says:

    Great post, Alan. I’ve been meaning to write a on this subject for a while, but you just hit it out of the park!I’m reminded of Bellingham’s Leopold Retirement Center—the next generation, if you will, of smart housing for seniors. It’s located in a renovated historical building near downtown Bellingham and boasts a walkscore of 97, which makes it the envy of many of the Northwest’s best urban neighborhoods.

  2. Sungsu says:

    Another alternative to a traditional retirement home is the Beacon Hill Village model.”Beacon Hill Village is a membership organization in the heart of Boston. Created by a group of long-time Beacon Hill residents as an alternative to moving from their houses to retirement or assisted living communities, it was founded in 2001. Beacon Hill Village enables a growing and diverse group of Boston residents to stay in their neighborhoods as they age, by organizing and delivering programs and services that allow them to lead safe, healthy productive lives in their own homes.”

  3. Raines Cohen, Cohousing Coach says:

    Thanks for writing about the issues of aging, housing, and retirement, Alan. As you identify, too many people are in denial, thinking of themselves as living forever with all the same capacities, and will end up forced into places that don’t meet their needs, when by exercising the most minute amounts of planning and conversation, they can gain new choices, save money, live greener, and have longer, richer lives.I have been exploring, writing about, and doing training with senior cohousing and intergenerational communities, as well as the “Village Model” that Sungsu mentions, for quite some time. I find that most people, like your dad, want to stay in their own homes, and the village model (incorporating enriched services into a neighborhood, including transportation and social services, with a “concierge” 1-stop-shopping referral service) can help with that. But at some point, that option may not be viable, and “aging in place” has its limits in every home, and the experience of working together in community can help prepare people to consider new options including creating a neighborhood designed to support us maintaining our independence further – through interdependence.It’s worth noting that most of the 120 established cohousing neighborhoods in the U.S. over the past two decades have taken steps to incorporate affordability and access, through creative approaches and/or partnerships with existing affordable housing providers. There is now cohousing in several states including permanently-affordable homewonership and rental opportunities.For more about cohousing and its evolution and directories of communities, I recommend visiting the Cohousing Association of the United States (<a href=' ‘>Coho/US) website: Cohen, Cohousing Coach & Certified Senior Cohousing “Successful Aging” FacilitatorPlanning for Sustainable Communities (Berkeley, CA)”Aging In Community” chapter author, “Audacious Aging” (Elite Books, 2009)

  4. Alan DeLaTorre says:

    I really appreciate the comments and insight. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Assisted Living package in Leopold Retirement Center, mentioned by Eric, was relatively affordable (as compared to the ubiquitous $4,000-5,000/month facilities throughout the country). Also, site location is so important when housing older adults with limited mobility and a 97 walk score is outstanding! At various communities conversations in Portland, the “Village Model” has been discussed as a desired approach by aging community residents. The major road blocks seems to be forming a critical mass of interested community members, establishing an organizational framework and funding sources, and affordability for interested resident (especially those who have moderate fixed incomes). In my neighborhood there was a desire to use the model to create a “one-stop shop” for services, but the leaders were not able to firmly establish anything before the group dissipated. Raines, you bring up an interesting point in regard to “aging in place” and its limits. Rather than promoting staying in one’s home for as long as possible, it seems as though it would be better to promote aging in the “right” place, perhaps in your home/community, perhaps not. I heard an interesting presentation at am academic conference about the topic last year and have been questioning my assumption that “aging in place” was an critical outcome that we should be trying to reach. I just requested a copy of “Audacious Aging” from our university’s Interlibrary Loan system and am excited to dive into the wealth of views that are presented.

  5. Betsy Nolan says:

    Thanks for the blog post, Alan! I’ll be sending this along to others.Betsy NolanProgram AssistantGlobal Aging and Health: Enhancing Communities in NicaraguaInstitute on Aging | School of Community Health | Portland State University

  6. Had Walmer says:

    Alan, thanks for this timely article for us all, denial proneboomers included.So sorry about your sister and her tbi. I have been a victim of tbifrom a car accident 32 years ago; funny it wasn’t even diagnosed correctly till early nineties.I am writing to share my experience of vipassana or insight meditation.This practice has grounded me and healed me by the connection I now have to an ‘undamaged’ me with peaceful mind. If this meditation/mindfulness is appropriate for your sister or father, please consider and contact me, through the above website.Best,Had Walmer

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