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Seniors want walkability, too, survey says

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Older adults desire accessible urban housing, too; developers should pay attention

An older woman walking on sidewalk in outside street in City Island in New York City.

We assume millennials prefer walkability and urban living for all the right reasons: social cohesion and community, better access to entertainment, services, and jobs. So why do we assume that older Americans and senior citizens, who also value connectivity, community, and healthy living, wouldn’t prefer the same living arrangement?

According to a new study by A Place for Mom, a nationwide referral service, the Senior Living Preferences Survey, older Americans value walkable urban centers. The survey asked 1,000 respondents nationwide about their living preferences, and a majority said it was very important or somewhat important to live in a walkable neighborhood, as well as one with low crime that was close to family.

“It’s time to abandon the idea that only millennials and Generation X care about walkability and the services available in dense urban neighborhoods,” says Charlie Severn, head of marketing at A Place for Mom. “These results show a growing set of senior housing consumers also find these neighborhoods desirable. It’s a trend that should be top of mind among developers.”

A nationwide survey of seniors found a preference for walkability
A Place for Mom

The new survey’s findings mirror what many in the industry have already discovered, and reinforce why a number of designers, planners, and architects have called for a larger reconsideration of how to design for our growing older adult population, and a focus on creating multi-generational communities in suburban centers to meet these growing needs. While financial considerations are still paramount, walkability ranked high regardless of income level, especially for those under 70 seeking senior apartments.

According to Bill Pettit, President of R.D. Merrill Co., parent company of Merrill Gardens, which develops senior living centers in the Southeast and West Coast, many developers, and society at large, assumed that seniors preferred a more rural or suburban location, due in large part to the fact that developers, looking to create larger campuses, sought out 3-5 acre plots of affordable land far from urban centers. Seniors don’t prefer campus living outside of town centers and urban centers, he says. That was a impression built on how the industry got started.

“We were creating these islands of old age,” he says, “where you’re surrounded by your peers and you lose that intergenerational connectivity. We found we were spending a disproportionate period of time busing our seniors to other places to generate that intergenerational connectivity.”

The courtyard of a Merrill Gardens development near the University of Washington in Seattle.
Merrill Gardens

Pettit says the company has changed its siting strategy recently, developing in urban areas with high walkability scores. He sees seniors electing to live in places where they feel connected. The survey, he says, just confirms that the company’s site selection policy is correct.

“When you can walk to shopping, or cross the street to a park, and that park is filled with children and families, I think it gives you a kind of lift that sitting and playing bingo during the day doesn’t give you,” he says.

He believes that seniors, who will be living longer and healthier lives, will begin to prefer campuses and living arrangements more connected to urban centers, especially as Baby Boomers age. He’s already seeing the shift in those his company serves: today, 75-80 percent of seniors at Merrill Gardens are independent, versus 55-65 percent before the Great Recession.

“The population is also physically aging more slowly, so many older adults will be able to stay more active later in life than past generations,” says A Place for Mom’s data scientist Ben Hanowell. “Across the spectrum of care needs, older adults will have a major impact on housing development over the next two decades. As a society, we need to start paying more attention to their behavior and preferences.”

A senior population boom is poised to reshape not just the way Americans think of old age, but how developers respond and build for this changing community. According to the latest report from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, Projections and Implications for Housing a Growing Population: Older Households 2015-2035, the number of Americans over 80 will double, from 6 million to 12 million, in the next two decades. By 2035, one out of three U.S. households will be headed by someone over 65. That’s 79 million Americans, or slightly less than the population of Turkey.