Getting places while aging in place

July 26, 2013 

Growing up in Independence and through my late teens, I got to all the places I needed to go either on foot or on bike. My bike and my feet were just means of transportation that allowed me to get to my friends’ houses or to various stores or restaurants. I never thought of walking or bicycling as leisure activities. I didn’t really think about either mode of transportation all that much – they were just something that I simply walked out the door and did as a means to get somewhere. A pedestrian-and bike-friendly bridge over I-70 along Phelps Road allowed miles of safe travel beyond my own neighborhood.

When I stayed with my grandma at her home in Kansas City, we could walk to visit members of our extensive family, her friends, stores or church. My grandma lived just a couple blocks from “the bus line” so trips to downtown Kansas City put shopping and medical appointments within easy access.

That was back in the 60s and 70s. As I think about those times and the way I could get from home to just about any place I wanted to go, I wonder: how will I get around when I find myself in my 60s and 70s?

What happens to the growing population of “baby boomers” who would like to “age in place” – that is, remain in their homes as they get older and grow beyond their physical ability to drive a car or their financial ability to afford a car. Surveys from AARP indicate that 84 percent of baby boomers plan to age in place. Will we be able to age in place and still get to the places we need to go? What happens to those of us who live in car-dependent suburbs?

According to the article How Will Boomers Reshape U.S. Cities? by Ryan Holeywell: “Urban planners and transit officials are realizing that the wave of boomer retirees will transform the way cities look, for the way they grow and sprawl to minutiae such as curb heights and the fonts on street signs.”

This is a new and growing concern for urban planners. According to Naomi Klein, director of planning in the Westchester County, New York, public works and transportation department: “[The baby boomers] don’t want to lose their independence. There’s real concern about having to give up driving.”

Many of us find ourselves in car-dependent suburbs that have not always embraced walkable design and that don’t have the population density required for some transit options. Professor of Architecture and Urban Design Ellen Dunham-Jones has written a book titled Retrofitting Suburbia that addresses those concerns and offers suggestions. Architect Scott Ball also offers possible solutions in his book Livable Communities for Aging Populations. Articles by Dunham-Jones and Ball can also be found on the Internet.

As we grow older, transportation issues are a growing concern. I wonder: Will I be able to get to the store, the library, the doctors’ office or the pharmacy? Will I be able to go see my friends and the members of my family in a way that allows me some degree of independence? Many of you have found yourself, as my husband and I have, with an aging or ailing parent who could no longer drive. Ask yourself what you will do when you are no longer in the driver’s seat. What do you hope for in terms of transportation options? Those are the options we need to be thinking about and advocating for today.

Kathy Biagioli is a Lee’s Summit resident, middle school teacher and Chair of the Education and Encouragement Subcommittee of the Lee’s Summit’s Livable Streets Advisory Board, a Mayor-appointed volunteer board whose goals include working to make our community and our streets more livable, safe and accessible for all of our citizens.

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