As Boomers get Older: Healthy Aging

2014 National Movers Data
2014 National Movers

As Boomers get older they will do anything to preserve their health …and that may include moving. Aging in suburbia will not be the healthiest place to get old. So, even though Boomers say that they plan to stay in their suburban homes “forever” the health impacts may drive them out.

It is not the environmental factors that will drive the Boomers to leave their unhealthy homes: i.e, not contaminated drinking water, toxic chemicals, or mold. The impacts of aging in suburbia are subtler, but they impact the quality of everyday life, aging healthy, and keeping connected.

In Aging in Suburbia (the book), we deplore how modern suburbs have been designed to serve cars first, people second. If people wish to exercise, they often drive to the gym or to places they can stroll or bike. Getting daily exercise become a struggle for older people, when it should just be part of the everyday routine, as in most other countries . The ability to move around without a car is part of the reason that aging in suburbia can be sub-optimal for older people, but it is only part of the story.


We begin with some historical underpinnings: Kunstler (The Geography of Nowhere, p. 55, 1993) writes that before zoning was introduced around 1916, factories could spring up anywhere. Manufacturing facilities were associated with billowing smokestacks, polluted water, and extensive noise. Urban areas teemed with crowded housing conditions and were plagued by sanitation issues and public health epidemics. So, it is not surprising that the wealthier people, those with means, moved out. For a long time, suburbs have been the gateway to a healthier locale with cleaner air, open space, and quiet.

Fast forward- a hundred years, and the health factors are in reverse. Western cities have resolved their smokestack and water conditions. Many have also evolved as meccas for safe, efficient public transportation, and walkable ped and bike zones.

It is the people who packed up and moved to the suburbs that face new public health issues. A plume of tailpipe emissions, associated with asthma and lung disease, emanates from the transportation sector in suburbia. Public health epidemics, like high blood pressure and obesity are associated with the car-dependent lifestyles of suburbia. And, stress and “rage” seem to be linked to some suburban excesses. For more on health impacts, see Jeff Speck’s 2012 book “Walkable City.”

One of the health issues that is less transparent is the peace and tranquility of individual homes. Suburban houses may be set far apart, with their expansive driveways and leafy lawns. They do afford privacy and quiet. But, for older people these amenities come with a price tag– the price of mowing the lawn, DIY house maintenance, and, in some areas, snow removal.


Until the electric vehicle becomes widespread, quiet may be the one characteristic that cities and denser areas cannot provide. When people live closer in more settled areas, it will be noisier. People may say they prize the quiet, but that is not necessarily a virtue for aging well. Quiet also equates with distance, lack of  mobility, and social isolation. Quiet may be the downfall of people who age-in-place and gradually loose their involvement with the outside world.

When Boomers wake up to the own aging, and consider the pros and cons of aging in place, there may be an exodus away from leafy, suburban homes. When the realities of old age kick in, there is little that people won’t do to stay healthier and live longer. So, expect aging-in-suburbia to move on, so to speak. Meanwhile, there could between 26 and 40 million properties in suburbia that come on the market by 2030 and impact real-estate values (see Aging in Suburbia, p37, citing A. Nelson). Financial health will be another RX issue for the Boomers, but not their primary one.

Facebook in Aging Suburbia

excludes China
source: globalwebindex Q1, 2014. Excludes China


Facebook and “Aging in Suburbia” seem like unlikely companions. Facebook is about where you live online. And, Aging in Suburbia is about where you physically live. Yet Facebook and Suburbia are metaphorically linked…at least for graying Baby Boomers.

Facebook was once the province of college age students, but now, they have been joined online by their elders. Facebook has become a means for middle-aged and older people to connect with their families, and a tool to reach back to earlier acquaintances. Older people are likely to say that Facebook is both informative and useful. The Pew Foundation found that  for the first time, more than half (56%) of internet users ages 65 and older use Facebook.  Pew reported that nearly two-thirds of 50-64 year olds and 43 percent of those aged 65+  (online) used Facebook.


But, for younger generations, it is no longer as cool to hang out on Facebook. The above cited article describes it as “an awkward family dinner party we can’t really leave.”  One reason is that pictures, posts and timelines are stable and searchable by employers and schools. It can anchor younger people to a network they might have outgrown. Like the suburbia inhabited by the Baby Boomers, it is a reminder of earlier times: a place for the old folks who are more settled in their roles.

Digital Natives and younger Millennials say they are tired of the old neighborhood and do not want to move back to suburbia. They favor more flexible, hands-free transportation, and they want to be closer to the center of things. They also seem to favor, at least for now, renting, over buying. They are wary of making a permanent footprint when there are so many alternative paths to explore.


The interconnection with Facebook does not end here. Older people grudgingly acquired the technology skills to navigate a Facebook page, set privacy options, and keep their profile current. They are generally slower to learn these techniques than younger people. Older people who stay in their homes, their physical homes that is, lag in other ways too. They are not early adopters of efficiencies in lighting, solar power, or recycling. They may resist mixed development in their suburban neighborhoods. But, when they see younger generations accepting these changes, or learn about it from their children, it is a prod.

Aging in Suburbia (the book) mulls over the problems when older homes require more extensive maintenance, when driving becomes arduous and difficult, and when the immediate neighborhood is no longer filled with local friends and acquaintances. At face value, Facebook would seem to be the salve for keeping in touch with friends and acquaintances. But, like the connections on Facebook, even connections to our physical neighborhood become tenuous over time. Loose connections, rather than a firmly knitted community of people meeting face to face, occur when people age in place but their friends and family move out.

Meanwhile, Internet commerce is rewriting where people want to live and work, forcing small businesses to close or relocate, and leading to a flood of empty malls and big box stores. A younger generation, living closer in, seems to be channeling the time they would have spent commuting in the car towards a different priority. The reallocation of their time is spent online, but not all on Facebook.

Baby Boomers and auto ABC

ABC autobuggy. St. Louis. 1906-1910.
ABC autobuggy. St. Louis. 1906-1910.

Baby Boomers, the generation that drives almost everywhere, are on the verge of discovering their automotiveA-B-C’s all over again. Over the past 40 years, Boomers have had a love affair with transportation. They have witnessed an ongoing parade of upgrades from the fanciful CB radio, to standard air and auto, antilock brakes, airbags, and GPS navigation.

The biggest vehicle innovation, the one that turns the automotive industry upside-down, is yet to come. Within a decade or so, the household car will be reinvented, an irony since the Boomers reinvented their lives around the car. There are core changes in mobility- a reinvention of automotive “A” “B” and “C.”

A stands for autonomous. The driverless car is no longer science fiction. In 2013, Nevada became the first state to allow driverless cars to apply for their own drivers’ licenses. In May 2015 a Daimler-built truck, nicknamed the Freightliner Inspiration, became the first autonomous vehicle to legally operate on its highways. Google has been testing driverless cars for six years and its blog says that it has the equivalent of 75 years of typical American adult driving experience. There have only been 11 accidents, none of them serious, and none of them caused by the driverless vehicle. The fundamental holdback today is not the technology; it is the marketplace working out matters of insurance and damages.

B is for bodily injury. This is a term encountered when you renew your insurance policy. With the autonomous car, bodily injuries will be far less, far fewer in between. In the U.S. the accident rate for the autonomous car is .6 percent per 100,000 miles; the national rate for reported crashes is .3 (30%) per 100,000 miles drive (note: many accidents go unreported). There are about 11 million automobile accidents in the United States and about 35,000 people are killed in collisions. World wide, more than 1,250,000 people die each year in car crashes. In medicine, a cure that saved so many lives each year would be heralded.

For Boomers, car accidents are an issue that plague aging. People become less safe and more vulnerable drivers as they age, so the self-driving car comes just in time” for Boomers. It will provide a healthier outcome for them, and their passengers. And, it will help make streets more “livable,” a safer place for pedestrians and bicyclists of all ages.

C represents “cars per capita” and it may the most surprising, and profound aspect of the automotive change. Since the time of Henry Ford, cars have been manufactured and marketed for individual-owners. Herbert Hoover captured this in his 1928 campaign slogan, “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. It was an important goal, but today it may be out of step with a population that is more vegan and likes the flexibility and independence of travel by Uber.

The key issue, comments futurist/author Martin Ford, is “perhaps the most important thing to understand about a future in which your car is fully autonomous is that it probably won’t be your car.” (Rise of the Robots, p. 186). If the Baby Boomers take a look inside their garage or at their workplace parking lot they may appreciate his  logic. The average car is parked for up to 95% a day and that is simply put, an inefficient use of a resource. The 95% calculation is cited in Aging in Suburbia (Chapter 7) and is attributed to Donald Shoup, a parking expert and professor from UCLA. Shoup has noted that for each car on the road, there are about 6 other parking spaces that needed to be built- think open parking spaces at the train station, the airport, church, school, the mall, work, gym, and so forth.

“C” Change and Consequence!

In the changing world of “cars per capita, Ford (Martin Ford, that is) points out that if you don’t own the car, and the vehicle comes to you (probably summoned with a Smartphone), you have little reason to care what make or model it is. Cars, he postulates, could cease to be status items, and the automotive market might well become commoditized. (In a footnote, Ford comments that auto manufacturers who do not join the bandwagon could resemble Microsoft, a company that has lagged in consumer markets for smart phones and tablets).

Since Baby Boomers began getting driver’s licenses, back in 1961, there have been a slew of changes- from occasional seatbelts to mandatory airbags. Old companies, like American Motors, Mercury, and Saturn have disappeared. New companies, notably Tesla, have emerged. But, curiously, the future may not belong to manufacturing firms. Instead, it is the companies that have developed ways to share cars– from Avis to Enterprise, and from Zipcar to Uber that could be the pace setters.