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Is Your Community Age Friendly?

Active senior couple running outdoors in park along lake

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2010 and 2020, the population of individuals aged 65 years and older saw the largest and fastest growth in any decade since 1880 to 1890, reaching 55.8 million or 16.8% of the total population. And, by 2035, something will fundamentally change. Per a February 3, 2021, article in Planning Magazine, that's the point at which the Census Bureau estimates the U.S. will have more people over the age of 65 than under 18 for the first time in history.

With these staggering statistics in mind, it’s no wonder that communities across the country are considering changes that would make them more age friendly. According to the American Planning Association, housing and transportation are the two biggest factors that prevent people from being able to age in place and thrive. Recently, the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University issued a report detailing challenges with affordable, accessible, and livable housing for older adults, and Route Fifty detailed issues with transportation systems for an aging population.

In this blog, I’ll take a deeper dive into how communities can build systems that help residents age in place, providing examples from throughout the state and elsewhere.

Key Planning Concepts

In Washington State, the number of people 65 and older has increased sharply between 2010 and 2022, with counties like Jefferson, San Juan, Pacific, and Clallam showing dramatic increases in the median age of already older-skewed populations. Cities like Arlington have issued proclamations to draw attention to this pressing issue.

So, what can local planners do to make their communities more welcoming for their residents as they age? They can start by finding local partners (e.g., senior centers, area agencies on aging, etc.), engaging older adults in planning processes (on location and at times that work for them), assessing their needs (e.g., where they live, how they get around, what’s available now, etc.), and implementing changes that will enable residents to maintain healthy, independent lives as they age.

Often referred to as livable communities, cities and counties with sustainable land use patterns and transportation and housing options not only serve older adults, but also provide opportunities for all residents to thrive. More specifically, they include:

  • Transportation infrastructure and services for non-drivers and the mobility impaired, like frequent and reliable paratransit and other on-demand transportation services, transit stops with benches and shelter, and well-lit sidewalks in good condition.
  • Housing options — like cohousing, homesharing, and accessory dwelling units (ADUs) — that serve the affordability and social needs of older adults.
  • Compact, mixed-use land use patterns that support walkability and transit, like 'complete neighborhoods' and transit-oriented development (TOD).
  • Places to socialize and exercise, like community gardens and parks with paved walking paths.

Transportation Options

According to December 20, 2023, commentary at Route Fifty, nearly 20% of older adults don’t drive and 40% live with ambulatory limitations. Even if frequent and reliable transit service is available, it may not be accessible to older adults if transit stops don’t have seating and weather protection. Insufficient sidewalks and crosswalks without adequate lighting or places to stop and rest are also a barrier for older adults who want to take daily walks for exercise and socialization or need to walk to transit stops and other destinations.

Incorporating supportive policies in plans sets the framework for action. Like most other complete streets policies, Arlington’s Complete Streets Plan defines the target audience as diverse users of all ages and abilities, and the plan’s prioritization criteria include 10 points for projects that increase accessibility to daily needs and amenities for older adults.

Some older adults have family or friends drive them to errands or appointments while others rely on options like rideshare (e.g., Skagit Transit’s Rideshare program), paratransit (e.g., Clallam Connect), and on-demand transit service (e.g., Island Transit GO!). A recipient of one of 25 AARP Community Challenge Grants in Washington State, the Bainbridge Island Senior/Community Center is piloting a collaborative transportation program that blends volunteers and contracted drivers to serve older adults. Seattle’s 2024 Older Adult Community Transportation RFP outlines a similar model.

Compact, Mixed-Use Development

Separated land uses and inhospitable community design (e.g., lack of pedestrian-scaled lighting and seating) are problematic for older adults who want to be able to get around on their own. Planning approaches like complete neighborhoods (e.g., see Redmond’s page), urban villages, and TOD focus on mixed land uses that make daily needs (e.g., health care services, grocery stores, etc.) more accessible via walking, biking, or transit. They also incorporate places for older adults to socialize and exercise.

TOD serves the needs of an aging population with its transportation options, higher densities, and mixed uses. Cities in Washington are identifying this concept in their comprehensive plans and TOD plans to not only meet the Growth Management Act’s planning goals around infill, but also to address the needs of changing demographics, including those over the age of 65. For example, Tukwila’s TOD Housing Strategies Plan calls out senior housing as a specific use to emphasize the need for a diverse range of housing for people in all stages of life.

In 10-minute neighborhoods (i.e. complete neighborhoods), basic needs are a short walk or bike ride away. Kirkland’s 10 Minute Neighborhood Analysis notes that demographics are an impetus for this approach, stating:

21 percent of the population aged 65 and older does not drive – and that section of the population is projected to grow significantly. Older non-drivers need options, so they remain engaged with their communities.

Social interaction and healthy activities are necessary for longer, more fulfilling lives. Sustainable land use patterns not only foster walkability, bikeability, and transit use, they also include third places — coffee shops, libraries, pocket parks, community gardens — that can keep older adults mentally and physically healthy. Local governments should update their zoning to allow these uses near housing for older adults, and they can also collaborate with community partners (e.g., neighborhood associations) on improvement projects that serve this population (see examples of partnerships to create or improve public spaces).

Housing Options

As we age, we may downsize or move in with family members or friends for financial and/or health reasons. A thread through many of the housing types appropriate for older adults, like ADUs and cohousing, is that they offer opportunities for intergenerational and other shared-living arrangements — whether it’s a grandparent living with their adult children and grandchildren or several older adults sharing a home (think Golden Girls). Cities like Puyallup are recognizing the need for this type of housing and incorporating it into their comprehensive plans.

ADUs are small, self-contained units on the same lot as another unit. Sometimes referred to as lifecycle housing, older homeowners or their adult children may move from a larger unit into an ADU and rent out the other unit, providing supplemental income, independent living, and companionship.

ADUs are often located in urban areas with transportation options, amenities, and services, which makes them ideal for older adults. Recognizing these benefits, AARP recently awarded a grant to a Bellingham-based nonprofit to host an ADU design competition. The Washington State Department of Commerce’s Guidance for Accessory Dwelling Units in Washington State includes dozens of additional examples of ADU projects, ordinances, and codes from local governments across the state and elsewhere.

Cohousing refers to an intentional community of self-contained private units with shared spaces, like gardens and laundry rooms. For example, Bellingham Cohousing is an intergenerational and collaborative community of 33 households (See the Bellingham Municipal Code for cohousing regulations). Located in Maryland, Carehaus Baltimore features the country’s first care-based cohousing project, wherein caregivers receive benefits like childcare in exchange for their work.

According to Silvernest, homesharing is another example of the sharing economy, like ridesharing or coworking. It’s shared housing (in a single unit) in which a homeowner chooses to live with at least one unrelated person who pays rent. Arrangements like this benefit older adults by offering financial, health, and security benefits.

An April 25, 2023, commentary at Brookings discusses a university-community homesharing collective that helps low-income university students and older adults connect and access affordable housing in West Philadelphia. Note that in Washington State, code cities are prohibited from limiting the number of unrelated people living together, acknowledging the potential of empty bedrooms to serve as housing for people of varying incomes, ages, and cultures.

In dense urban areas, co-living arrangements like microhousing or single-room occupancy also play an important role in serving older adults due to their convenient locations and low maintenance needs. They mirror standard multi-family units (Kenmore considers them to be apartments), but are smaller and some may share kitchens with other units. Shoreline limits microhousing to 350 square feet and doesn’t allow them to include full-sized kitchens. Instead, these units must share a full-sized kitchen and other common areas (e.g., bathrooms and dining rooms). As with any multi-family housing type, communities should review any associated development regulations, like parking and density, to reduce barriers for this type of development.

Modifications to existing homes to make them functional and healthy are also key to helping residents stay in their homes as they age. Referred to as universal design or accessibility, these features include no-step entries and wide doorways and hallways. King County provides grants for upgrades like wheelchair ramps, shower conversions, and more for low-income renters with special needs.

To encourage more development of new housing for low-income older adults, many communities include incentives for this type of housing in their development codes. Redmond offers a density bonus for affordable senior housing (where residents pay no more than 30% of their monthly income on monthly housing expenses) in any zone that allows retirement residences or multi-family housing. The bonus permits development to exceed the allowed density by as much as 50% if half of the bonus units are low-cost, affordable units. Seatac also offers density and height bonuses for senior housing.

Conclusion and Additional Resources

This blog provided a handful of ways in which planners can make their communities more prepared and welcoming for residents as they age. Most importantly, older individuals should be engaged in planning processes that impact them (The current comprehensive plan update process is a good place to start!) where and when it is convenient for them.

Engaging with local aging organizations and hosting on-site engagement opportunities can boost participation in any planning effort. From there, plans, programs, and incentives can be developed through the lens of age-friendly communities.

Additional resources from MRSC:

And other related links:

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Lisa Pool

About Lisa Pool

Lisa Pool joined MRSC in June 2021. Most recently, she served as a senior planner for Bellingham. In this role, she primarily focused on long-range planning projects, including the city’s comprehensive plan and new housing regulations. Prior to moving to Bellingham, she worked on regional sustainability and transportation issues for a metropolitan planning organization and conducted development review for cities and counties in the Midwest.

Lisa holds a Bachelor of Arts in environmental policy and a Master of Urban Planning, both from the University of Kansas in Lawrence. She has been a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners since 2009.