Aging in the American Suburbs: A Changing Population

By Stephen M. Golant, PhD

The face of the American suburbs is gradually changing. Is the suburban infrastructure capable of supporting the aging population?

We have both glorified and disparaged the suburbs as a place to live. Its proponents have portrayed the private ownership of the detached single-family home with its manicured lawn and cul-de-sac streets as the American dream. They have hailed the suburbs as a place to raise children in a safe and stable environment. They argue that the automobile—that inseparable appendage of suburban life—has given Americans inordinate flexibility in living, working, shopping, and playing options.

Its detractors contend that these low-density and homogeneity-obsessed suburban developments foster racial and gender inequalities and guaranteed monotonous and suppressed lifestyles. Critics characterize the suburbs as a failed experiment of American capitalism that ravages our natural amenities and forces residents to mindlessly navigate their automobiles through a sprawling, inefficient, and ugly landscape of congested roadways, strip malls, and roadside fast-food restaurants.

After thousands of pages dissecting and analyzing these opposing views, consensus eludes us. Just in case we have tired of this debate, the suburbs are bracing for a new demographic tidal wave likely to generate a new set of controversial questions. America’s suburbs are aging and whether this is a good or bad thing is uncertain, not only for their burgeoning population of older adults, but also for the economic and political stakeholders who must accommodate them.

A New Demographic Reality?
Gerontologists are unlikely to display surprised reactions that adults in their 60s populate America’s suburbs. In a 1975 Gerontologist paper, I predicted that the older population would be “spatially dispersed over an increasingly large suburban area.” My unremarkable crystal ball gazing recognized that over the prior three decades, young families—mostly white—had been moving from city to suburban locations, and as their families expanded, they were unlikely ever to look back. Here they were destined to grow old—or to use the familiar vernacular, age in place. Later, in a chapter in a 1993 book, Elderly Migration and Population Redistribution, A Comparative Study, I reported that in 1977, for the first time, “more older people were living in the suburbs than in the central cities” of our metropolises.

Two generations of older adults aged 65 and above now occupy our suburban settlements—especially in our “first tier” or inner suburbs, those built just before World War II, and during the rapid suburban growth of the 1950s and early 1960s. A 2005 Department of Housing and Urban Development demographic analysis by Linda McCarthy, PhD and Sunwoong Kim, PhD, “The Aging Baby Boomers: Current and Future Metropolitan Distribution and Housing Policy Implications” found that nearly eight in 10 of the age 65-plus population now live in U.S. metropolitan areas, and that almost two thirds of these metro dwellers live in the suburbs rather than its central cities. These 20 million older adults are comprised of the GI generation, born in 1924 or earlier, who are now over the age of 85 (also called the Greatest Generation) and the Silent Generation (sometimes subdivided into the Great Depression and the War Baby generations), born between 1925 and 1945, who are now in their mid-60s to mid-80s. Notably, nearly one half (46%) of our current older suburban population is now aged 75 or older.

Given this already large suburban presence of older adults, the cynic can rightfully ask, so what’s new? The answer is that in 2011, our suburbs will become home to yet another generation of older adults when the oldest baby boomers begin to celebrate their 65th birthdays. Needless to say, the boomers have left their societal imprint at every stage in their lives, and the private sector continues to court them as consumers.

This suburban “arrival” of the boomers will not result from a mass exodus from our city centers or rural areas. As noted by demographer William Frey, PhD, in a 2007 Brookings Institution report, titled “Mapping the Growth of Older America: Seniors and Boomers in the Early 21st Century,” older boomers will constitute the first “truly suburban generation.” Their suburban roots are a consequence of the residential and child-rearing decisions made by their GI and Silent Generation parents. Most boomers then chose to live, work, and grow old in their suburban locales. Nor will these predominantly homeowners move closer to their metros’ traditional downtowns when they get older. Rather, another suburban neighborhood is a more likely destination. If we can rely on national population growth projections for guidance (available at, between 2010 and 2020, our suburbs will witness a massive increase—close to 50%—of boomers aged 65 to 74. As they age over the next two decades (2020 to 2040), those in their mid-70s and older will double in size, and by 2040, almost one in five older adults will be aged 85 and older.

Aging in Place—A Good Idea?
Ongoing survey results from AARP conclude that most older adults are satisfied with where they live and prefer not to move. They feel emotionally attached to their residential settings and treat both their dwellings and their personal possessions as archeological evidence of their memorable past lives. Because they are longtime occupants, they typically have a well-established social network, know how to navigate their communities, and are reluctant to pick up stakes and start new lives in unfamiliar places where they risk feeling less competent in negotiating their surroundings.

The 85% of suburban older households who are homeowners are particularly reluctant to sell their dwellings. They view the expected selling value of their homes as an emergency fund that could cover their future medical or long-term care costs and as inheritance for their children. When they have difficulties living independently, they hope to cope with their vulnerabilities without having to move by relying on family members or paid assistance. Their resolve is strengthened by public policies that have made the ordinary dwelling a focal point for the delivery of all matter of affordable long-term care.

The current economic downturn and collapse of the U.S. housing market is further contributing to the residential inertia of older suburbanites. Feeling insecure about having enough income in their later years, older persons are postponing their retirements and remain shackled to their workplace locations. Those who can move are reluctant to sell their dwellings at their depressed selling prices and, in any case, can’t find qualified buyers. One of the unwritten tragedies of the current housing crisis is the larger share of older people who are now “forced” to age in place even as they once had moving plans.

There are many reasons to worry that the aging-in-place behaviors of these older suburban dwellers—even those professing this preference—may not be in their best interests because their dwellings and neighborhoods will increasingly be out of sync with their changing lives. To be sure, we must be careful about making generalizations because the suburbs they occupy are not all the same. Some are located in younger, economically thriving and faster growing Sun Belt locations and are dominated by younger seniors; whereas others are found in slower growing, older Rust Belt areas in economic decline and are top heavy with the very old. Some have largely escaped the worst effects of the housing downturn, but others have high dwelling vacancy and foreclosure rates.  Some places attract younger retirees, whereas others lose them. Some are very residential; others have multiple commercial nodes. Some are the homes of predominantly white residents; others have become ethnically and racially very diverse. In some are concentrated the educated and the wealthy, and in others, the less educated poor.

Nonetheless, some generalizations are easier to make than others. Easily getting around most U.S. suburbs requires an automobile, and those without this mobility are more disadvantaged. Persons under the age of 85 still drive to most places—and this will be especially true for tomorrow’s older female boomers. (Many of the current generations of older women never learned how to drive.) Nonetheless, older ethnic and racial minorities and women over the age of 75 with lower incomes and living alone have much lower driver licensure rates. Older adults also reduce their auto use long before they give up their drivers’ licenses because of age-related visual, cognitive, or psychomotor functioning declines, which make it more difficult and unsafe for them to drive, especially at night or in congested areas. Moreover, the spread-out locations of older suburban residents can make it more challenging—time consuming, difficult to schedule, and expensive (fuel costs)—for service providers to deliver timely medical and nonmedical home care as I argued in a 2008 paper titled “Affordable Clustered Housing-Care: A Category of Long-Term Care Options for the Elderly Poor” published in the Journal of Housing for the Elderly.

Epidemiologists are also reporting a link between suburban living and physical health. They find that older people walk less frequently when they live in lower density neighborhoods that are more distant from shopping, restaurants, and other services. They also get out less when their neighborhoods have social disorders such as poverty, intimidating strangers, and crime. Absent or poorly designed and maintained sidewalks (e.g., uneven or interrupted walkways, poor street lighting, absent benches, dangerous crossings, and hilly terrains) also limit their mobility as pedestrians. Additionally, they find that older people with more limited walking opportunities are at greater risk of being obese.

The suburban old are also more likely to live in dwellings that they moved into much earlier in their lives to raise their families and to be near their places of work. By the age of 65, the original reasons for their selection no longer exist. Most are retired, are living on fixed incomes, and have their houses to themselves. Their bigger-than-needed dwellings have important financial implications. Even as they have usually paid off their mortgages—although boomers are less likely to own their dwellings free and clear—they may be paying unnecessarily large amounts for their property taxes, insurance, and utilities.

Predictably, they also live in older dwellings. Seven of 10 older persons now occupy dwellings built almost three decades ago. These can be plagued by technological and maintenance deficiencies demanding costly repairs and upgrades and that can increase the likelihood of accidents from falls. Access and use obstacles exist because their architects designed them with younger occupants in mind. Something as deceptively innocuous as stairs to access the front door of a house or its second floor can be formidable barriers to older adults with limitations in lower body functioning. As I suggested in a 2004 journal article for the Society of Certified Senior Advisors:

“[These] older dwellings suffer from lighting, electrical, air and heating systems and insulation that are inefficient, outdated, or poorly designed. They are also less likely to have physical design enhancements, such as well-placed handrails or grab bars, ramps, easy-access bathrooms, easy-access kitchens, stair lifts, widened doors or hallways, and modified sink faucets or cabinets. Altogether, these deficiencies make for dwellings that are more difficult and less safe to use by more physically frail occupants. Fixing these problems can be expensive, however, and it is often difficult to find reliable and honest workers.”

As they enter their mid-70s and beyond, our older suburban dwellers are also likely to confront various chronic physical and mental health problems that make it difficult for them to live independently if they cannot count on the reliable assistance of other persons. However, they may have woefully inadequate social supports if they live alone, their grown children live in a different metropolitan area—sometimes in a different region of the country—and the people they once counted on as friends or neighbors have moved away or died. Thus, painful loneliness and unreliable sources of material and care assistance may be the price for remaining in their otherwise comfortable dwellings.

Community Response
The good news is that some suburban communities are attempting to reshape their locales in ways that would make them more elder “friendly,” “livable,” or “healthy.” They are either attempting to make it easier or safer for their older residents to stay put or, alternatively, they are offering them nearby housing arrangements that recognize their need for affordable and downsized (owned and rented) dwellings designed with elders in mind and located in neighborhoods accessible by walking or transit to achieve everyday needs.

Even when community leaders agree in principle with the importance of these efforts, their participation is not guaranteed. Implementing solutions often depends on finding funding for social and health services and housing-related services from charitable organizations or government programs, but many needy population groups are competing for these limited resources. Perhaps surprisingly, it can be more feasible to deliver care and assistance in suburbs with larger residential concentrations of vulnerable older persons. Here, these programs realize economies of scale advantages—lower client costs and more efficient service delivery—when they can serve a larger cluster of elders in need.  Indeed, the increasingly well known NORC Supportive Services and Beacon Hill Village programs have enjoyed such benefits.

Older suburban locales cannot agree on a comprehensive and coordinated elder strategy because they consist of hundreds of fragmented government jurisdictions with their own agendas. Achieving an appropriate balance between staying put and housing relocation options is also not easy but is critical in light of the downsides of one-size-fits-all solutions.  Some challenges will be formidable. Making available (through construction or rehabilitation) new affordable rental housing opportunities—especially linked with supportive services—is more difficult in older built-up suburbs that have a shortage of developable land and restrictive building codes or land use policies.

How vigorously suburban community leaders respond to the unmet needs of their aging constituencies also cannot be simply divorced from their old age perceptions and stereotypes. A love-hate relationship often drives their actions. They like the reliable Social Security and pension incomes that allow older people to purchase their products and services or fill their bank accounts, even in bad economic periods. They sometimes value the wisdom and experience of their seasoned community leaders. They welcome the stable neighborhoods of their older residents who infrequently sell their dwellings to families with school-aged children who would demand fiscally draining support for public school education.

On the other hand, they worry about financial and staffing strains on their hospitals, emergency departments, clinics, rehabilitation centers, and social services, especially when their elders are in their late 70s and 80s. They also fear that a rocking chair image of their communities will turn off prospective younger, working-aged residents and discourage the entry of new industries and businesses. They worry too because older adults are less inclined than younger residents to renovate and upgrade their homes—further depressing housing values and in turn their property tax revenues.

We once acclaimed our suburbs for the residential, educational, shopping, and work opportunities they offered to younger American families. Generalizations regarding our future suburbs will be more complicated, as we assess their appropriateness for our older boomers to grow old. The verdict is still out.

— Stephen M. Golant, PhD, a geographer and gerontologist, is a professor in the department of geography at the University of Florida in Gainesville. His most recent book, with Joan Hyde, PhD, The Assisted Living Residence: A Vision for the Future was published in 2008 by The Johns Hopkins University Press.