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BUILDING A MORE SUSTAINABLE FUTURE FOR SENIOR LIVING: Part 2, Becoming More Sustainable by Becoming More Senior Friendly

Despite the public’s likely reaction, sustainable senior living, as an integral part of a community’s vitality, can become a reality. Getting there, though, cannot occur in a vacuum. The aging of America, and the world for that matter, is one of five converging global trends. The other four are peak oil, water scarcity, climate change, and the obesity epidemic. If a community is to adopt changes that move it closer to becoming known for sustainable senior living, then the five inescapable trends must be considered in concert. Currently, most com-munities across the United States are unsustainable, let alone capable of fostering sustainable senior living. Even without having heard of James Kunstler (2005), The End of Suburbia (Greene, 2004), peak oil, water scarcity, or the obesity epidemic many suburbanites already admit to their automobile-dependent predicament. The average American spends 55 minutes/day in a car (Research and Innovation Technology Administration [RITA], 2010) while the average family makes 11 to 13 car trips per day (Duany, Plater-Zyberk, & Speck, 2001). And yet, even with daily life becoming increasingly unsustainable—rising heating, cooling, transportation, and food and health care costs—the reaction by many to the suggested changes needed to become more sustainable will likely be one of resistance. Most of us are comfortable with practices that waste energy and land such as zoning, auto-dependent streetscapes, and limited public transportation. We are accustomed to living unsustainably (Owen, 2009). It is ironic that suggesting changes that foster senior living environments that are pedestrian-friendly, medium to high density, mixed-use, and multigenerational is too dramatic for many people to consider. The likely knee-jerk reaction of, ‘‘Not in my backyard,’’ by residents, business owners, and municipal leaders will delay their communities from realizing the social and economic benefits that accompany sustainable senior living. On the other hand, communities that embrace sustainable senior living will become better prepared to economically and socially weather the emerging global trends’ life-changing influences (Heinberg, 2004; Brown, 2006).

French poet Paul Valery’s observation that the ‘‘that the future is not what it used to be’’ (www.quotes.net/ quote/8461) sets the stage for what follows here. Given the emerging global trends, the future we have come to expect is unsustainable (Hawkins, Lovins, & Lovins, 1999; Eisenberg & Persram, 2009). The inevitable changes to our built environments and the daily personal, business, and political behaviors they support will challenge the status quo.

But even that can change. What follows here by no means anticipates or answers all the questions that will surround and characterize that challenge. What follows here is an effort to lift the veil of denial preventing many of us from seeing a future very different from what we have come to expect. This is accomplished in three steps. First, five converging global trends are summarized. Second, taken together, a brief summary of each trend enables us to make five realizations that enhance our ability to honestly assess our situation. By realizing the trends more for their common features than their specific influences, we can develop a plan of action supportive of sustainable senior living. Third, the action plan introduces three practical activities aimed at enabling a community to socially, politically, and economically move toward a more sustainable state. The activities include: organizing professionally diverse collaborative teams, employing two often underutilized human resources, and educating future populations’ appreciation for the kinds of communities supportive of sustainable senior living. The activities outlined below are derived from an ongoing, six-year community-university partnership between Spokane, Washington’s Hillyard neighborhood and both Washington State University Spokane’s Interdisciplinary Design Institute and Eastern Washington University’s School of Business students and faculty. This series will conclude with a rationale communities can use to sway the naysayers; it speaks to the economic, social, and health benefits that come with moving in a direction that supports sustainable senior living.

Today, sustainable senior living has the best chance of becoming a reality in those locations currently identified as naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs) (Kirk, 2009). However, even life in a NORC requires we use a much broader and more inclusive definition of sustainable living. Neighborhoods identified as NORCs are still places to which resources are brought and through which they flow, rather than places that generate and reuse resources in a more closed system. Elsewhere, to provide seniors with a standard of living considered sustainable, most existing urban, suburban, and rural com-munities would have to initiate changes to their built environments. Most contemporary communities, and those older communities revitalized to accommodate the 20th century suburban migration, were designed for the automobile. As such, they are currently not capable of supporting senior living let alone sustainable senior living (Hodge, 2008; Stafford, 2009). Yet, in 2000 America’s suburbs were home to 31% of the Baby Boomer population. Those resident Boomers will, according to Frey (2003), contribute to the fastest senior growth trend due to their wish to age in place (Stafford, 2009). Without land use and transportation changes many of those aging-in-place Boomers will experience increased levels of isolation (Hodge, 2008; Stafford, 2009). Communities willing to restructure land use policies, zoning regulations, and transportation systems needed to foster and sustain pedestrian-friendly, higher density, mixed-use, multigenerational places will likely retain their aging-in-place population and attract an in-migrant elder population. Those communities that put off adopting similar changes stand to experience an out-migration of 45-to-65-year-old residents to the more inviting places (Frey, 2003, 2006, 2007; Stafford, 2009) and lose a valuable workforce.

Given the rapidly growing number of seniors, what with one of the nearly 78 million Baby Boomers turning 55 every seven seconds (Center for Health Communication [CHC], 2004), the question of communities adopting changes is moot. Timing is the issue. The retrofitting and restructuring of neighborhoods, municipalities, and their regions is not a question of when but how soon? Add to the aging trend four other in escapable growing global trends and we begin to become aware that not only is change coming but its magnitude and character will be unlike anything we have experienced. The sooner voters and municipal leaders and their planning staffs admit to this inevitable future, the sooner they can prepare, plan, and rework policies and regulations that foster sustainable senior living.

However, before initiating sustainable senior living plans, voters, elected officials, and their staff need to understand its future context. What with seniors living healthier, longer lives, businesses, local and state governments, and the seniors themselves are already changing how they define retirement, retiree, and retirement destination. What with energy prices fluctuating higher and higher and most oil rich countries politically unstable, many individuals and businesses are already shifting their energy-dependent practices and budgeting emphases. What with the deterioration of the public’s health due to obesity and its comorbidities, many businesses and schools are already dealing with increased absenteeism, reduced productivity, and escalating health care costs (Tucker & Friedman, 1998; Finkelstein, Fiebelkorn, & Wang, 2005). What with more and more municipalities and regions experiencing water shortages, water resource wars or skirmishes are becoming more public (Glennon, 2009; Reisner, 1986). And, what with shifting cli-mates, manmade or not, entire plant communities are migrating, long-standing regionally-produced crops are changing, and portions of the country and the world are experiencing more and more major weather events (Climate Impacts Group, [http://cses.washington. edu/cig/]; Lerch, 2008; Manitoba Minister of Innovation, Energy, and Mines [MMIEM], 2010). These growing and overlapping trends are influencing how we live, work, and play. The trends are making most of us rethink what we imagined as the future; what were once unconsciously considered sustainable ways of life with oil at $20 to $30 a barrel (in 1958 a gallon of milk was $1.01 and gasoline was between $0.14 to $0.19 gallon) are now admittedly unsustainable.

There is no question, the needed changes will be politically and economically challenging. How the changes are approached and argued for will greatly influence a municipality’s ability to realign its policies, regulations, and businesses to support more sustainable living for residents of all ages. While individuals struggle to balance food, medicine, shelter, and public or private transportation budgets, a new breed of municipal and state leaders will be needed to make very difficult decisions. Such challenging decisions can be made more acceptable to voters and elected officials concerned about their political futures as they begin to realize that in solving for one trend’s growing impacts they will, to a great extent, be solving for the other trends’ growing influences. What this means is that community leaders could substitute maneuvering to become more senior-friendly for the more politically contentious machinations associated with climate change and still reduce their community’s carbon footprint and lower its greenhouse gas emissions. Also, for those communities more dependent on oil than hydroelectric energy, there is a positive economic argument for implementing the needed changes sooner rather than later. Even with occasional dips in oil prices for a few months here and there, it is more likely that petroleum will continue to become more costly and less available. Infrastructure changes made now will cost less and, according to the McKinsey Global Institute (2007), will accrue savings that will pay off investments in a limited time and then allow investments in newer infrastructure needs. Another form of return on investment comes with communities actively facilitating their seniors’ wishes ‘‘to help improve the quality of life in their communities’’ (MetLife-Civic Ventures, 2005, p. 6). With seniors’ continued employment the local workforce is enhanced.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Achieving a sustainable state, let alone sustainable senior living, is likely impossible. But, the potential of individuals, businesses, neighborhoods, and municipalities benefiting from moving closer to a sustainable state is possible. Such a move begins with understanding the trends and then admitting to certain realities regarding their influences. Coming to understand each trend and the ways each will likely influence our daily lives and the built environments that support them will take much more time and space than this article. Even so, the brief summaries and related realizations that follow should be sufficient to stimulate thinking on why, how, and where to start planning for sustainable senior living.