As an explosion in the number of people over the age of 65 looms over the nation, leaders in the Charlottesville-area senior community are hoping the creation of walkable neighborhoods and attractive urban places can help increase the quality of life for all.
“The age wave is not something that’s going to happen in the future,” said Peter Thompson, executive director of the Senior Center. “We’re in the thick of it and we need to be paying attention to it.”
The 2010 U.S. Census Bureau recorded more than 40.2 million people over the age of 65, or 13 percent of the total population.
In 2013, the bureau estimated that 16 percent of Albemarle’s total population is over 65, compared with 9 percent in Charlottesville.
The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia projects that Albemarle’s over-65 demographic will increase to 21,617 in 2020, or about 18.7 percent of the total population. By 2040 that number is projected to climb to 33,529, or 21.6 percent.
The number of people in Charlottesville over 65 is projected to increase to 5,367, or 11.8 percent of the population, in 2020. By 2040 that number could increase to 6,127, or 12.6 percent.
Marta Keane, chief executive officer of the Jefferson Area Board for Aging, said the percentages increase to around 25 percent when the rural counties that are part of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District are included.
“We are trying to prepare and I don’t think there’s an overall awareness of just how big the age wave is,” Keane said. “We have to be more aware of accessible housing, affordable housing and transportation accommodations.”
JABA was formed in 1975 to serve the needs of the aging community as part of a federal mandate. The nonprofit’s mission is to “promote, establish and preserve sustainable communities for healthy aging.”
In 2001, the organization collaborated to create the 2020 Community Plan on Aging. One of its initiatives is called Livable for a Lifetime and that is being implemented by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. The goal is to create a new action plan by May.
In the meantime, both JABA and the Senior Center are calling for a summit to discuss how urban areas can be improved to provide for a better of quality of life both for seniors and for the generation that is now coming of age.
“The Millennials and the Boomers are the two largest generations in history,” Thompson said. “They are choosing to stay where they are or relocated based on the quality of the place.”
Thompson said both generations are looking for connected communities where they do not need a car to get around. That requires good public transportation and a network of sidewalks and bikeways.
“They are not looking for three acres out in the county,” Thompson said. “They’re looking for a more urban setting. They’re looking for great opportunities for paid and volunteer work and civic engagement.”
Thompson said making that happen is more difficult because of the land-use patterns of the mid- to late 20th century, which saw more people moving to the suburbs.
That sentiment is echoed by Asa Eslocker, a co-creator of a documentary film called “Landscapes in Longevity,” which traces the connection between place and a person’s ability to live a long life. He and co-creator Harriet Jameson examined three places in the world that have a high percentage of people who live long lives.
“The places around us shape who we are, and we in turn shape the places around us,” Eslocker said. “Humans have been modifying places and landscapes for thousands of years. The way we do that affects our health.”
Eslocker said the built environment in the United States was made less healthy as suburbanization separated people’s homes from the places where they worked. The switch to an automobile-based landscape made it less likely people walk.
“Being outdoors and having contact with nature and other humans is the overarching theme that we saw in these three places,” Eslocker said. “These communities, especially Okinawa and Sardinia, were formed way before the advent of the automobile, so people walk everywhere.”
“It fits into the neighborhood as opposed to being a high-rise but that means it only meets a small part of the need,” Keane said. “The problem is there is not that much land left in Charlottesville or the urban ring of Albemarle.”
Nearby, JABA has partnered on the Blue Ridge PACE Center, an all-inclusive health care facility on Carlton Avenue. Apartments and condos are planned for either side with the idea they will be marketed toward seniors.
Keane said that contrasts with another senior living complex that JABA operates in Nelson County.
“The challenges there are very different than the challenges at Timberlake because you don’t have as much access to transportation,” Keane said. “People don’t necessarily want to move into the urban ring, so we’ve really got to look at developing affordable housing in the outlying counties.”
Some people would like to finish their years in Charlottesville, but cannot due to the higher cost of living.
“I chose to ‘retire’ to the general area of Charlottesville due to family and school connections, and my love of the natural surroundings, but I have chosen to move out to a surrounding county due to the congestion and higher cost of living in Charlottesville and Albemarle,” said Fluvanna County resident Kim Bassing.
Bassing was able to secure a mortgage payment that is much less than the rental payment she was making when she lived within city limits. Though she is concerned about driving as she grows older, the lower cost of living gives her peace of mind.
However, others plan to do the exact reverse as they near retirement.
Be in town
“We live in the county now but we want to be in town to be closer to the kids, have a smaller house and a yard,” said Beryl Solla. That will allow her and her husband to be able to walk to work.
Keane said ensuring seniors have access is key to their happiness and longevity, no matter if they live in the rural or urban area.
“Baby boomers are not interested in being segregated by age group,” Keane said. “Sun City, Arizona, was the model for a place to go and live in a senior community. I don’t think we see as big as push for that anymore. There’s a lot more interest in multi-age and multi-family housing where you are around a lot of different age groups.”
Eslocker said he thinks the city’s Strategic Investment Area could be an opportunity to build more walkable communities that could appeal to seniors. But, he added, much of that land contains subsidized housing and the low-income people who live there now must not be displaced.
“How can we create a denser, more walkable area that is diverse, that celebrates the local ecology and celebrates the rich history of a very diverse set of communities?” Eslocker said.
Thompson also said he thinks there needs to be more “third places” in the community, referring to social environments that are neither homes nor workplaces.
“Our future Center at Belvedere, we believe, will help fill this gap in our community,” Thompson said. “While not free to do everything, it will have an indoor and outdoor café, affordable social and recreation opportunities, good location and be walkable.”
“Landscapes of Longevity,” which premiered at last fall’s Virginia Film Festival, will have an encore showing at 7 p.m. April 1. The screening will be at CitySpace in the Market Street Parking Garage and is free to the public.