Aging in place: Assessing your community

Most people would rather stay in their homes as they grow older instead of moving to a retirement community or nursing home. The CDC defines "aging in place" as the ability to live in one's own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level.

Aging in place isn't about avoiding change. It's about making adaptations to your existing home and lifestyle as you age. Accessibility and safety are important factors when considering whether you should "age in place."

The design of a community can affect the mobility of its residents

Although you have limited control over how your neighborhood or city is designed, you can advocate for changes by bringing the issue to your condo or neighborhood association, your city council, or your state representative. Being aware of these issues can also help you decide whether to move, and where. Every neighborhood comes with trade-offs—you may prefer to live close to a family member, for instance, even if it's far from grocery stores. But taking an inventory of how your neighborhood meets your needs can help you find ways to work around the challenges.

  • Public transportation. Most people outlive their ability to drive. Yet some communities that cater to retirees are far from urban areas with robust public transit systems. And many centers that offer affordable housing and services to older adults are located in suburbs inconvenient to shopping centers and grocery stores. While these places are attractive because they offer quiet, peaceful living "away from it all," they become much more isolating if you can't drive, or if driving is challenging for you. Having access to reliable public transportation could allow you to remain independent and active as you age. Some communities offer special shuttles or dial-a-ride services to seniors and people with disabilities who have trouble getting to transit stops and stations, or who need transport to major medical centers for treatment.
  • Driveability. How easy is it to drive in your community? If you are in an area that's frequently affected by snowstorms, is there a reliable plowing service? Are streets well marked, and can you park easily at grocery stores, medical centers, and other places you frequent?
  • Walkability. Living in a walkable neighborhood can vastly improve your health and mobility by encouraging you to use your body to get around rather than driving. Even if you regularly go to a gym or work out at home, the ability to easily and safely walk to a grocery store or do other errands on foot will add to your daily activity level. A walkable neighborhood generally has dedicated sidewalks and marked crossings for pedestrians, and shops, parks, and other destinations within walking distance. Weather and climate matter too; if you live in a place that is stiflingly hot in the summer or dangerously icy in the winter, that will affect how much you walk.
  • Safety. How older adults perceive the safety of their neighborhoods shapes their health. One survey of 18,000 people over age 50 found that those who perceived neighborhoods as unsafe were more likely to experience functional decline over a 10-year period and were less likely to recover from mobility problems. But perceptions don't always match reality; in some cases, the solution may be not to move but to improve a person's sense of personal safety.
  • Access to shops and services. Access to grocery stores with fresh food is important for maintaining a healthy lifestyle and also for preserving independence with aging. So is access to pharmacies, clinics, and any other services you depend on for your health.
  • Access to nature. Does your home have easy access to a park, community garden, lake, or other natural space? These can provide walking destinations, and motivate you to get outside and avoid isolation. Research has linked regular access to nature with improvements in health and well-being.
  • Social environment. Do you have relatives or friends who live near you and whom you visit regularly? Are there places where you can socialize and meet other people, like community centers, fitness centers, or clubs? Are there any neighborhood social activities? Some people pursue retirement dreams that involve moving to places where they have always wanted to live, only to find they are more isolated from family and friends.

To learn more about ways to maintain your independence, read Mobility and Independence, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

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