Last night I had the chance to sit on a panel discussion for the the Western and Central Virginia chapter of the Aging in Place Council. The discussion was preceded by a keynote presentation from Dr. Nancy Brossoie, a research associate with the Virginia Tech Center for Gerontology.
Dr. Brossoie made an excellent point in keynote that I wanted to explore further here. In her comments, which focused on the need to have a solid plan for aging in place, she said that you need to understand what you mean by “home.” Is home your physical house? Your community? Your state? I think this is important, because when planning for aging you must understand that your decision about housing is inseparable from your decision about transportation (or, more precisely, mobility). Indeed, not considered carefully enough, your housing decision may contradict your mobility needs.
When planning for aging at home, you need to think very carefully and intentionally about what that means. Is home defined as your house and all the memories you have associated with it? Does home include things like going to church on Sunday, or volunteering at the Rescue Mission? Does home include picking up fresh produce at the Farmer’s Market or taking in a concert at the Jefferson Center? If home contains all those ideas, how do they connect? I mean, physically connect – how do you get from your home to these places that are important to you? In particular, how do they connect if and when you get to the point when you can’t drive anymore?
To most people – me included – it doesn’t occur to us that we wouldn’t be able to drive if we want to. I often choose to bike or take the bus, but I always know my car is there if I need it. When planning for an already difficult and emotionally fraught time of your life, it can be even more difficult to accept that loss of mobility. But this is exactly the time that contingency needs to be considered; otherwise, we may find ourselves stuck in the house we like but without access to the things that actually make us feel at home.
Further, this housing/transportation connection has financial implications. One woman asked a financial advisor on the panel whether it was better for her elderly mother to remain in her paid-off house, or sell it and move into a rental apartment. Wisely, the financial advisor responded “it depends,” and listed some of the pros and cons associated with each. Not discussed, though, were the cost implications of transportation, especially if that paid-off house was in a suburban or rural location with no access to mobility options. For example, if her elderly mother were to lose the ability drive, would she have to rely on a taxi or Uber to trips to the grocery store or medical appointments? What would those costs be compared to, say, a bus pass, if the rental apartment was on a transit line (likely, since most of the apartments in the area are located in the denser urban core served by transit). A 25 mile round trip taxi ride, about the distance from Daleville to the Valley View Mall Wal-Mart, will run upwards of $60. Even a few of these a month start to rival prescription drug budgets.
In the aging in place discussion, it’s important not to take the transportation issue for granted, and to be fully aware of the connection between transportation and housing. It may be the case that the housing you want is incompatible with your mobility needs. Being clear-eyed about the features that are important to your quality of life may make the decision to choose housing closer to existing transportation options easier.
And there are other upsides to: Dr. Brossoie discussed the importance of social connection and intergenerational (interacting/being around people of all ages) connection to the health of the elderly. As it turns out, the housing options that put people close to transportation options are the very same kinds of development we are seeing to attract millennials and young professionals to the Roanoke Valley: apartments and townhomes in dense neighborhoods with easy walking and biking access, neighborhood centers, and public transit service. These are the kinds of places where seniors are likely to encounter young families walking their dogs, kids getting off the school bus, and where the high school students might cut their lawn for spending money. It might be the height of irony if the places we are making to attract young people end up being the exact same places we need to better serve our seniors.