Designing citiesthat meet elderly women's needs

August 11, 2010

As an AARP-card-carrying baby boomer, my thoughts these days turn ever more frequently to the concerns of older Americans: the viability of Social Security and Medicare, the soaring cost of healthcare, and the 998 other shocks that my ever-flabbier flesh is heir to.

Yet within my cohort is a group that deserves special attention from the design and construction industry—the millions of women age 65 and older who live in our cities. Consider these facts (with thanks to USA Today's Haya El Nasser and the AARP's “Beyond 50.05: A Report to the Nation on Livable Communities”):

In 2005, some 17 million women age 65 or older lived in America's cities and suburbs. This group of women represents 60% of the elderly population in America's urban centers—in great part, as we know, because Medicare-age women outlive their male counterparts.Women of 65 and more years are more likely to live alone than men of that age—by a factor of three to one. We can easily assume that many of those women living in our cities are on their own.

These facts, taken together with everyday anecdotal experience, point to serious issues that designers, urban planners, and public officials need to address more aggressively. Public safety and crime are obvious issues of paramount concern to elderly women. But beyond these are the little annoyances that are too often ignored, but which can make life especially miserable for elderly female city dwellers:

Broken sidewalks that make it difficult for elderly women to navigate, often resulting in falls that result in broken hips and that can lead to even more dire medical consequencesPoorly designed stairs leading to housing and public buildings, or poorly maintained access in many older shopping areas and institutional settings (healthcare, cultural, entertainment)Traffic signals and “Walk/Don't Walk” signs that don't give elderly women enough time to cross the street without invoking the wrath of impatient drivers (usually younger males).

Other trends are equally nettlesome for older women. According to the Census Bureau, for example, the population age 65 or older will increase by 33% between 2005 and 2020 (the population under age 50 will only increase by 4% in that time frame). Again, elderly women likely will constitute well more than half of that burgeoning group. As the AARP report notes, half of those age 50 and older in 2005 said that their current home would not meet their physical needs as they grow older—even though almost two-thirds (62%) of this group said they want to stay in their current home.

This may be a boon for the home remodeling industry—think of all those ramps and bathroom grab bars to install!—but it also signals the need for well-planned, thoughtfully designed cities, with affordable housing, walkable streets and sidewalks, safe public transit, and convenient access to services for the special needs of our nation's elderly women.


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