An Aug. 15 story in the Vancouver (Canada) Sun asks the question, “What makes a city a good place to grow old?” For a start, the answer it provides is walkable neighborhoods and feeling part of the community.
Columbia-Pacific communities can be somewhat self-congratulatory on both these counts, while we still must strive to improve our towns in a range of ways. Proliferation of trail systems in the past decade has been an especially welcome way of encouraging outdoor exercise, while binding neighborhoods more closely together. And there is a strong tradition of community participation here — thanks in part to a politically engaged citizenry.
Quoting the Sun’s story both validates what has already been achieved around the Columbia estuary region and highlights some subjects we can still make a better effort to address.
“Around the world, municipal leaders are looking at ways to make cities better for an aging population: New York has re-installed many of the bus benches it had removed to stop homeless people from sleeping on them, this time adding strategically placed arm rests to make lying down impossible. Walk signals at wide intersections have been lengthened — or medians added — to give slow-moving pedestrians a fighting chance of making it across the street. ...
“Characteristics of an age-friendly city go beyond decent sidewalks. The WHO [World Health Organization] suggests a wide range of amenities, including accessible green space, health care, public transit and safe, affordable housing. Add social participation, respect and the opportunity to keep working if desired.
“Why should we bother? Beyond the notion of fairness for all citizens are the practical and even economic reasons. Using the knowledge and skills of older people in paid or unpaid work is a resource that is wasted if they are excluded. The majority of retirees also pay their own freight, buying goods and services that employ others. In terms of the public purse, healthy aging can translate into lower hospital costs.”
America in general and our region in particular are incredibly fortunate to have a substantial population of robust and engaged citizens in their older years. Among industrial democracies, we have only to look across the Pacific Ocean to Japan for an example of some opposite extremes. A fascinating Aug. 23 story in the New York Times (tinyurl.com/GhostHomes) tells of a rapidly aging demographic where the overall population is expected to fall by a third over the next half-century, leaving millions of “ghost homes” unoccupied and decaying within depressing suburbs of Tokyo.
There are many ways in which we can make our towns and rural areas more sustainable for older residents. The best ideas are likely to originate from residents themselves, who know what they need. But here are a few:
• Continue working to improve pedestrian safety. Especially as traffic increases, we need to do more to make sure that crosswalks are prominently marked and situated wherever needed. In addition, many of our towns need better sidewalks.
• We need to keep supporting — and expand as needed — services offered by Sunset Empire Transportation and Pacific Transit System.
• There is never a time to declare victory in terms of parks and green space. With the Pacific Northwest’s overall population rapidly increasing, we must do all we can to bank these lands for the future — for recreation, mental health and wildlife.
• Affordable senior housing, continued access to high-quality healthcare, ensuring that local boards and commissions conduct business transparently and with ample public participation — all these factors and more will make this a great place to live for people of all ages.
Deliberate planning and action can ensure that the attributes we treasure in local communities endure for generations to come.