Aging in Place: More Costs for Boomers

ecohealthA widely held belief is that it is best to age-in-place. The rationale goes like this: people are more comfortable in the house they know; surrounded by familiar objects and routines; old age is not a time to make big changes. Baby Boomers say that they plan to age-in-place, but they have not thought out the basis.


In a recent blog, we suggest that Baby Boomers might find that the desire to age-in-place is in conflict with their need to stay “wellderly” (well+elderly). The suburbs do not contribute to a healthy lifestyle when residents are more sedentary, exercise less, and have more difficulty staying connected. If retirees become house-bound, they can suffer from more anxiety and depression. Baby Boomers are being sold a bill of goods about aging-in-place if they think that renovations like grab bars, non-slip floors, and extra lighting  are panacea to age-in-place. If the Baby Boomers choose to age-in-place in suburbia, they will come “head to head” with their lifestyle choices. 


Meanwhile, there is research from a different arena that informs us about the importance of making good choices at the neighborhood level. An University of Pittsburgh study conducted in Amsterdam (and reported in an open access journal called PLOS ONE), compared residents (of all ages) who lived in different types of neighborhoods. Neighborhoods were rated on a scale that assessed noise levels, vandalism, and an unsafe feeling when walking alone.

After controlling for outside factors, the researchers found that people who lived in “bad” neighborhoods were biologically older by about 12 years than those who lived in “safer” areas. The researchers measured the length of telomeres, which are thought to be a marker of aging cells. Telemeres are described as protective caps on the ends of chromosomes; they shorten with each cell division. At some critical length, the cell stops dividing or dies. The length of telomeres were measured in this study. They key finding, associated with locality, is this:  the subjects with shorter telomeres resided in the less safe neighborhoods with more crime or noise.


Scientists are looking for links between the length of telomeres, weight, stress levels and physical mobility.  The research is too nascent for Baby Boomers to be asking their real-estate agent to report “telomeres scores” for different homes. However, they can use a short-cut to assess whether they should age-in-place or move. It is called walkability. If they can safely and enjoyably access places on foot like stores, community centers, and recreation, it is probably a neighborhood where telomeres are long, drive time by auto is short, and aging-in-place is going to be a healthy option.

The True Cost of Aging in Place

ecohealthIt is unsettling to think that aging-in-place can compromise your health. But, over the long run, it might. When Boomers wake up to the true cost of staying put, aging in suburbia may become an anachronism, a relic from their old, unhealthy days.

Twenty years ago, the Boomer mantra was to settle in safe, child-friendly neighborhoods. The mantra is changing as aging Boomers seek neighborhoods that will increase their activity levels, decrease stress, and help them stay “wellderly (well+ elderly) longer.

Keeping “wellderly” is not a new aspiration. Boomers like to think that they are healthy and, as a generation, they have embraced active lifestyles, gym memberships, and organic/healthy food choices. More than 1 in 3 say that they have a regular exercise schedule and the fastest-growing age group purchasing health club members are those age 55+.


Despite this outward embrace, the wellness outcomes are not positive. Boomers are less healthy than the generation before them. (Some of this may be a reporting issue- as health data is now more carefully monitored). A 2006 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study found the psychiatric rate to be 21 percent among Boomers, compared with eight percent for the previous cohort. It was also found that 60% of 51 to 56 year old Boomer men born from 1948 to 1953 had chronic health problems, compared with 53% of the cohort born from 1936 to 1941 at the same ages. The Boomer generation is more likely than their parents to suffer from obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

The sobering statistic is that only 13 percent of Baby Boomers reported being in excellent health compared with 32% of those in the previous generation, and 52 percent of Boomers said they got no regular physical activity compared with 17% of their parents at the same age.

This is a generation that smokes less than their parents and has access to more comprehensive medical care, so what is going on?


The likely culprit is that Boomers are more sedentary- they walk less and drive more. Workers in the U.S. have an average commute time of 50 + minutes, shopping is spread out over a small number of superstores serving a bigger region, and, 2009 travel data estimates Americans make, on average, 470 car trips to stores each year. In other large economies, like Germany, car transportation is less ingrained in everyday activities, so seniors walk and bike more and that keeps their weight off. Sitting in cars is not good for the waistline: in fact, the most obese workers in the US are in the transportation industry- truck drivers, followed by bus drivers, and the like. But, time spent in cars does not tell the full story. Baby Boomers are often obsese  and have high cholesterol because of their life-styles and food choices.


If the Baby Boomers choose to age-in-place in suburbia, they will eventually come head to head” with their lifestyle choices. Although they plan to drive to the gym or yoga class, or do miles on an indoor running track, these recreational activities are seldom sustained over the longer run. Experts on aging-in-place foresee the ability to order things in, and have robotic help. But, staying indoors is likely to contribute to waistline woes, and fuel depression and anxiety.

So, the Baby Boomers will be facing-up to the health consequences of choosing to age-in-place. Aging consultants like to insist that modifying the home- things like installing grab bars, non-slip surfaces, and extra lighting will be the panacea. Literally, this is a bill of goods. The real need, for self-sufficiency, independence, and exercise- must take place at the neighborhood level. When health becomes the priority- it will hold more sway than keeping the now-empty family home and perhaps be more coveted than vacations, luxury cars, and appetizing restaurant meals.