Editor’s Note: Dr. Rodney Harrell is AARP’s Director of Livability Thought Leadership. His editorial was previously featured in the Herald-Tribune. Most of us are living longer these days. Today we add, on average, about 110 days of life expectancy to our lives every year. Before 1900, human life expectancy grew at only three days per year. But while being able to savor more days in Florida’s sunshine is great news, most communities across America are just starting to talk about what longer lifespans mean for where and how we live. Sarasota has already started that conversation through Age-Friendly Sarasota, an initiative engaging multiple sectors to build a community for all ages. Sarasota County was the first Florida community to join the AARP-World Health Organization Age Friendly Community Network, a global group of communities that are actively planning to make their communities more livable for people of any age. This week, AARP will join with The Patterson Foundation, the Florida Department of Elder Affairs, the Florida Policy Exchange Center on Aging at the University of South Florida, Sarasota County Government and the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee to explore how to make Sarasota County more livable. I’ll be there to share updates on what other communities across the nation are doing. The great news is that a livable community enhances quality of life for all ages, and there are few places better than Sarasota County to focus on making a community more livable. Already, significantly more people age 65+ live in Sarasota County than do people age 24 or younger. By 2040, the entire nation will have more residents 65+ than 18 or younger. As we prepare for that new future, we need to change how we plan where and how we live, both on the short-term and longer-term levels. In the short term, we can focus on individuals and their homes:
- A home in a suburb may work well for a busy family with children, but it might not work as well for older residents who are no longer comfortable driving. Having different transportation options within reach can make all the difference in being able to live independently.
- Money matters too. Many of us consider “downsizing” in later life, when the kids have grown up and left, and we no longer need as much space. Also, a home that is affordable for a couple might no longer be affordable if one spouse passes on, and the surviving spouse needs to cut back on expenses.
- For these reasons, communities need to think about how to offer multiple housing and transportation options to reduce dependency on cars as the only way to get around and to offer housing at various price points.
What about costs? The truth is, careful planning can save big bucks, both on the personal and community level.
- Changing development codes to encourage so-called “universal design” can be important. It may cost tens of thousands of dollars to retrofit a built home with no-step entrances, wide doorways and kitchens and storage reachable when seated in a wheelchair. But building those options into a home during construction can cost less than $1,000, according to an AARP study a few years ago.
- Designing communities to allow for different kinds of transportation also is less costly if done as they’re being developed than it is to retrofit them later. For example, Florida now boasts several communities where people can go on foot, by bike or by golf cart to get nearly everywhere—for groceries, to the pharmacy, or to entertainment.
Tools like AARP’s online Livability Index can help you to learn about your community and how to improve it. With just a little advance planning and careful consideration, it’s possible to make big gains in making our communities and our homes work better for us at all stages of our lives. And with many of us able to look forward to long, full lives, that’s great news. Follow Rodney on Twitter @DrUrbanPolicy
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