photo by R. Duran.

Earlier this year, I wrote about how human-scale walkable urban places empower adolescents to experience the world without needing parental chauffeuring services. The same applies to seniors who have stopped driving for health or other reasons.

This Thanksgiving, I visited my grandparents in their new apartment in a senior community in New Jersey. Heath Village is a quiet, suburban retirement community, similar to Leisure World in Olney. My grandparents’ new home is a good facility with more than adequate staffing and opportunity for recreation. It also has plenty of parking.

While all that parking is great for someone who owns a car and has a valid driver’s license, what about those senior citizens who, for a variety of reasons, do not drive? When my mother and her brothers first started to help my grandparents find a smaller living space, they hoped to find a community in a town environment. My mom isn’t a Smart Growth activist and transit nerd like me. She had read my previous post but hadn’t really analyzed it too much. Yet she immediately thought that a walkable urban town environment would be most appropriate for my grandparents’ new apartment, despite not being able to articulate why. To her, it just “seemed right.”

My grandfather just bought a brand new Ford Focus and is a very competent and capable driver. My grandmother gave up driving at least 15 years ago. Even still, they have no problems living in a car-dependent place. They had lived in the car-dependent outskirts of an historic small town in Northern New Jersey since the early 1960s. Despite my mother envisioned a walkable urban town as the best environment, in the end, they couldn’t find a retirement community in a town environment and chose Heath Village instead.

But what would happen if, for some reason, my grandfather couldn’t drive anymore? My grandparents would be stuck. They wouldn’t be able to get groceries, fill out paperwork related to their house, or go to visit anybody. I can’t imagine how frustrating and depressing such a scenario would be for my them. My grandmother didn’t retire until she was 90. She would not take well to being housebound. Sadly, they would be disconnected from the outside world, dependent on others to take them outside of the apartment community.

There are many senior citizens who are in such a situation. The loss of driving privileges stands between them and disconnection from the outside world. My other grandmother did not drive for most of her adult life. My grandfather always did the driving. It was how their marriage worked and how they supported each other. However, once he died, she had to learn how to drive because they lived in a very car-dependent place. She drove as little as possible, even after becoming proficient at it. It was very stressful for her. As time went on, she got out less and less. It was very sad to see from 300 miles away. I kind of think that again, a human-scale town would have been a better place for her to live out her retirement, especially after my grandfather died.

According to the National Council on Aging, suicide is more common among seniors than any other age group in the United States. Isolation is one of many possible causes of depression and suicide. What is more isolating than living in a car-dependent place alone, without access to car transportation? Seniors need stimulation, something to work on and something to look forward to just as much as anyone else. They crave a sense of belonging to a community just as much as anyone else. Most of them grew up in a human-scale walkable urban place and remember it fondly.

Rather than isolating senior citizens in a single-use pod, there should be opportunities for them to live as part of a mixed community with everyone else. Many seniors have much wisdom and experience to pass on to the rest of us. It is not possible to learn from them if they are not a part of the community but rather isolated to their own residences. Our society would be much richer both from our individual senior citizens’ improved stimulation and sense of purpose, and from everyone else learning from their experience and wisdom.

Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master’s in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place’s form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them.  He lives in downtown Silver Spring.