Aging With Place

While grocery shopping last week I witnessed a person roughly my age helping her mother shop. I couldn’t immediately identify her mother’s ailment or reason for needing help, and little did I know I’d be doing the same thing for my own mother this week following her eye surgery. The “silver tsunami” is rapidly approaching for many of us in the sandwich generation, and I’m only beginning to understand the direct implications.

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For the first time in world history, there are more people on planet earth age 65 and over than there are children under 5, as discussed in a recent World Economic Forum article. With that comes a fear, well reasoned, that countries that don’t produce enough young workers to replace those retiring will suffer economically. Fair enough, but I’m more concerned about issues closer to home: how people’s lives are affected when they can no longer drive.

Articles like this one in Curbed look at emerging senior housing trends for those who want to live in an urban setting; i.e., who have the means to choose where to live. This week’s report from Colliers is evidence that there is no shortage of major real estate developers and investors looking at this issue, but the Curbed article also mentions the shortage of affordable senior housing nationwide. Developers in the Twin Cities, for example, like Real Estate Equities, are adding affordable senior options like the 172-unit The Winslow in 2019. However, this won’t solve the housing shortage for seniors. More supply and creative solutions are needed.

Back to the issue of transportation. The oldest baby boomers have crossed the 70-year old threshold, and this generation was the first to live essentially their entire lives in a car-dependent society. To most, driving is essential, and my observation is a precious few have appropriate resources to deal with the eventuality of not being able to drive. A somewhat routine eye surgery like my mother’s, for example, changes everything about quality of life, even as simple as groceries. I’ve written about walkable grocery stores previously, and it’s a big deal! It’s also wonderful to see new developments near me like Lowa46 with a ground floor grocery store.

Take away the option to drive and your choices are to rely on a spouse, family member or friend for a ride, even for routine things like groceries. Luckily now there are ride sharing services and grocery delivery, but the loss of independence is depressing. I also don’t think dial-a-ride services like Metro Mobility are prepared for future demand. Of course, you can move to a more walkable location, but most people I know don’t have their belongings packed, estate sale complete, and home listed when their retina detaches or the stroke occurs.

This is all to say that most of us are unprepared for the “silver tsunami,” both those of us in it and those of us expected to plan for it and build it. The Colliers report does mention these problems and potential solutions, but we in the real estate and placemaking community have only begun to wrap our collective heads around what to do. I suspect that overall we’ll have to adjust our expectations downward and accept that caring for the elderly is part of the responsibility of an extended family, as was the case in human history until very recently. The silver lining of this silver tsunami is, for developers of walkable senior housing options, demand will likely always outpace supply.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is

11 thoughts on “Aging With Place

  1. Josephmck

    We are fortunate to have a robust network of nonprofits to support individuals with disabilities and aging Boomers with transportation, grocery shopping and meal replacement. For many years I worked with a corps of volunteers who assisted “clients” with errands and grocery shopping. You are correct–the capacity of programs like this is stretched to keep up with demand. Your article is a good reminder: The Greater Twin Cities First Call For Help (call 211) is an amazing resource for information about and referrals to programs that can help. There are programs for those who can no longer drive, and lots of programs for caretakers, too.
    211 is a direct way to be more thoughtful about using programs that impact the environment.

  2. Conrad ZbikowskiConrad Zbikowski

    My grandmother is 92 years old and rides a wheelchair. She lives in New Brighton. She lives in a senior apartment building (not the service level of assisted living) and the building provides day transportation through an owned bus and employee driver.

    For groceries, there is a Cub Foods across the parking lot, so my grandmother takes her electric scooter on good weather days to buy groceries several times a week.

    The building bus only goes out a certain radius from the building, so for longer trips, by grandmother uses Metro Mobility or has either my uncle or I drive her. We signed her up for Metro Mobility last year, and it made a huge difference in her quality of life. She can bring another person to push her and help, and they get to ride along to her activity. A retired nurse at her building has gone with her to church events and other community happenings.

    Seeing the world through my grandmother’s eyes, my own mother, now 62, has chosen housing that will be easier once she is less mobile, but still can walk. Her apartment is a 9-minute walk to a Trader Joe’s.

    My father, age 67, unfortunately, is not adjusting to change. He can still drive, but he cannot walk, and uses a walker or grocery cart to get around shorter distances. He still lives in the single-family house he owns, and has to go down steep stairs to do laundry. He has talked about moving to a senior apartment with a bus, but hasn’t made concrete efforts to make a move.

    There you have three situations of people who are approaching aging in place differently.

    1. Frank Phelan

      It’s important to choose you next residence while you still can. Some people wait until the break a bone, then they are told they cannot go back to their single family home. They typically must rely on a family member to go out and choose their next home. Then, family has to go through their possessions when they cannot be present.

      It is a very independent thing to choose your next home while you can still do it yourself. It’s best to control your own destiny, rather than waiting and letting someone else to do it for you.

      Denial is not just a river in Egypt.

    2. Monte Castleman

      I’d imagine most of the elderly living in houses have an extra bedroom or two after the kids have moved out. I wonder how expensive it would be to retrofit one into a laundry room so the residents wouldn’t need to go down steps. For the next owners this would be easy to revert to a bedroom- just move the washer and dryer back downstairs and drywall over the water inlets. Or the next owners may even like it as a laundry room.

  3. Mike

    When you say “have the means to chose where they live” that opens up a lot. There are several nice apartment or condo next to/over grocery stores or other amenities – think the 50th and France cluster with Lunds as well as restaurants and doctors, with apartments and condos all around. The Cobalt in Northeast and neighboring buildings. Several proposed like the Aldi on Lyndale. While fixating on proximity to grocery stores isnt’ a panacea it is one of the most consistent needs and one where preserving independence is most frequently valued. These nodes of dense multi-family housing by grocers are key.

    Once you can’t care for yourself then you do need to escalate to a new level of care as Conrad describes.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      “Have the means” is what I’m hinting at. Nodes you mention (and others) are excellent choices for seniors. Not all seniors have the income or wealth to make that choice. My concern is enough affordable housing choices for seniors – perhaps the topic of a whole new post!

  4. Monte Castleman

    The eventual solution is going to be self-driving cars. I’m middle aged now, so I can easily see them being ready for prime time in a generation (certainly not replacing all existing cars in 10 years like some people have proposed) by the time ability to drive becomes an issue for me. I agree with the author we have an issue to deal with in the mean time.

    As for senior housing, there’s a recognition that we need a lot more of it in Bloomington. If empty nesters want to stay in their single family home until the end it’s certainly fine. My sister and I never imagine wanting to live in multi-family housing, senior or otherwise unless it’s a low maintenance second place so we can be snowbirds. But a non-zero amount of seniors would elect senior housing if it were available, freeing up single family homes for younger people.

    There have been quite a few projects. 98th and Lyndale the city finally put it’s foot down and said they wanted more than a fourth strip mall at that intersection, a number of churches and the mission college with large lots have sold off a portion for senior housing, At Normandale Lakes a proposed office building is being built as senior housing instead. Traditionally neighbors threw a fit every time one was proposed, but this seems to be dying down lately.

    There’s obviously a difference in care provide, from just slapping an “age restricted” label on it to what are essentially nursing homes. This and location and marketing lead to differences in how engaged they are to the neighborhood. 98th and Lyndale you see quite a few of them in the neighborhood walking or driving, but the one my grandmother lived in in Seattle was in a quiet rural area with food cooked for them, and no one ever left unless it was in a car of a relative.

  5. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Great article Sam.

    I am likely much closer to actually being elderly than most who read this. Recently in choosing a place to live a key element was that we be able to walk or ride bicycles SAFELY and COMFORTABLY to the grocery, pharmacy, coffee place and some places to eat. This is both our retirement health plan (stay healthy) and plan for when we can no longer drive.

    One fascinating bit about our time in Europe is how many more older and elderly you see out and about compared to the U.S. Part of this is that they have a much stronger belief in daily activity, particularly as they age. It’s also because they make it possible. Most European countries consider it critical that older/elderly people be able to walk or bike to all of their daily amenities and so planning is done for this.

    Another interesting bit is the extent to which people with disabilities are able to successfully ride bicycles. People who need a cane, crutches or a walker to walk are able to ride a bicycle. It is quite common to see someone walk out of a place with a walker and then get on a bicycle and ride off. This keeps them physically and mentally healthier.

    There is also a bit of a move away from ‘retirement communities’. At least for people who are able to live independently or with minimal (daily or weekly) assistance. They’re finding that people do much better in mixed age communities vs surrounded by only older people.

  6. Lou Miranda

    Maybe surprising to most, but this is a huge issue in Edina. Demographically, we have the oldest residents in the state. Average income is high, but not everyone is average and not everyone has a high income as they retire & live off their savings, and luxury and even market rate housing that is being built now is much higher priced than existing housing.

    Many people who have lived here for decades could not afford to move into any new housing.

    My partner is at the leading edge of boomers, and I’m at the trailing edge. Just this weekend we went to look at ADUs on the Mpls-St. Paul Home Tour. They’re not legal here yet, but they could be a solution to people like us who live near a node with a supermarket/co-op, but live in an older house with one bathroom on the second floor. A single-level ADU could solve a problem for many as they age.

    We’re not in a crisis situation yet, but I’m trying to plan for a smooth transition. I think the solution is being within walkable/bikable distance to a useful node. I don’t think technology (autonomous vehicles) is the solution.

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