How much Americans want nostalgic suburban recreations outside of “memory towns”

To help older Americans with dementia and other ailments, “memory towns” bring them back to their younger days:

On August 13, a brand-new town in Southern California welcomed its first residents. They trickled through the doors of a generic beige warehouse on a light-industrial stretch of Main Street in Chula Vista, a San Diego suburb. Then they emerged in Town Square, a 9,000-square-foot working replica of a 1950s downtown, built and operated by the George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers. Unlike the businesses around it hawking restaurant supplies and tires, Town Square trades in an intangible good: memories…

Glenner has partnered with the home-health-care giant Senior Helpers, which employs some 25,000 caregivers around the United States, to build Town Squares around the country. Version 2.0 is under construction near Baltimore, in a former Rite Aid in White Marsh, Maryland. Senior Helpers will own and run that facility, which is expected to open in early 2019. But franchise sales are underway, and Peter Ross, the company’s CEO, is bullish…

The onward march of private or semipublic “nostalgiavilles” (retiree-only communities, such as the The Villages in Florida, are similarly engineered to evoke vanished small-town life) raises the question: Do people respond to these places simply because they remind them of their youth, or does their form matter, too? After all, millions of Boomers grew up in postwar sprawl, but Town Square isn’t designed to mimic that.

Instead, as Tarde noted, it “really replicates [a] kind of urban experience. You’re going to a movie theater, going to a library, a department store. Engaging in these activities that may not be accessible to these individuals any longer. But they are in Town Square, and it’s safe.” In other words, the principle behind Town Square is the dense concentration of different services, as in a city (although adapted for a vulnerable population).

Sounds like a promising idea.

I wonder how much of a market there is for recreating idyllic American suburbs in various forms. This could include therapy settings (though the examples discussed above seem to focus more on urban downtowns) and senior living communities. But, it could also include history museums, parks, entertainment venues, and retail settings that want to add a unique element.

One way this could happen is through history museum. Imagine a facility like Naper Settlement in Naperville, Illinois. The facility seems to be well-funded and it helps a wealthy suburb of over 140,000 residents connect to the community’s earlier decades (mid-1800s to early 1900s) as a small farming community. The outdoor portion includes a number of older buildings either moved to the property or recreated that give visitors a glimpse of what life used to be like. Yet, the facility does not do as much with the postwar suburban boom era that might be the true marker of what Naperville is today. Could it move 1950s ranch homes and strip malls and other markers of postwar life that would give visitors a sense of a growing suburban Naperville?

If critics are right about suburbs, perhaps there is little nostalgia worth celebrating. After all, suburbs have been characterized as patriarchal, cookie-cutter, conformist, a waste of resources, and racist. At the same time, millions of Americans grew up in such settings and cultural products (books, films, TV shows) regularly invoke idyllic postwar suburbia (while other products in the same mediums try to show off the darker sides of the same places). These postwar suburbs also came about in an unprecedented era of American prosperity.

At some point, I expect Levittown might become part of a museum or theme park. Given the amount of people who experienced such settings plus the attention (both positive and negative) given to suburbs, isn’t this an opportunity waiting to happen? At the least, many suburbs across the United States will need to find ways to provide compelling and interactive narratives about their own growth that encompasses the era of highways, subdivisions, and sprawl.

Speculation: more Americans choose to pursue unretirement to find meaning

Various data points show more Americans continuing to work even when do not need the money at retirement age:

Unretirement is becoming more common, researchers report. A 2010 analysis by Nicole Maestas, an economist at Harvard Medical School, found that more than a quarter of retirees later resumed working. A more recent survey, from RAND Corporation, the nonprofit research firm, published in 2017, found almost 40 percent of workers over 65 had previously, at some point, retired…

Even more people might resume working if they could find attractive options. “We asked people over 50 who weren’t working, or looking for a job, whether they’d return if the right opportunity came along,” Dr. Mullen said. “About half said yes.”

Why go back to work? We hear endless warnings about Americans having failed to save enough, and the need for income does motivate some returning workers. But Dr. Maestas, using longitudinal data from the national Health and Retirement Study, has found that the decision to resume working doesn’t usually stem from unexpected financial problems or health expenses…

Researchers note that older workers have different needs. “Younger workers need the paycheck,” Dr. Mullen said. “Older jobseekers look for more autonomy, control over the pace of work. They’re less concerned about benefits. They can think about broader things, like whether the work is meaningful and stimulating.”

One of the primary ways that adult Americans find meaning is in their jobs. Not only does a job help pay the bills, a job has become a reflection of who you are. Think of that normal question that leads off many an adult conversation: “What do you do?” With a shift away from manufacturing and manual labor jobs, service and white-collar jobs can encourage the idea that our personality and skills are intimately tied up with our profession.
Put this emphasis on an identity rooted in a job or career together with a declining engagement in civic groups and a mistrust in institutions. Americans are choosing to interact less with a variety of social groups and this means they have fewer opportunities to find an identity based in those organizations. We are told to be our own people.
Imagine a different kind of retirement than the one depicted in this article: older Americans finish a long working career and then find time to get involved with extended family life or various causes, secular and religious, where they can provide both expertise and labor. Where would many congregations or civic groups be without the contributions of those who are retired and now can devote some more time to the public good? What if the child care needs that many younger families face be met with grandparents who could consistently help? What if retired Americans could regularly mentor children and teenagers who would benefit from wise counsel and a listening ear? That is not to say there are not plenty of retirees who do these things; however, this approach involves a broader look at life satisfaction that goes beyond a paying job.

Maybe affordable housing will be addressed when more seniors need it

The retirement difficulties facing many American seniors includes finding decent housing:

What can be done to help today’s seniors and generations to come? There are two approaches, Prindiville says: help people save for old age and make retirement more affordable. As for the first approach, some states have been trying to establish programs that help people save for retirement through payroll deductions even if their employers don’t offer any retirement-savings accounts, for example. But the Trump administration in May repealed an Obama-era rule from the Department of Labor that would have made it easier for states to help people to set up these plans. And the federal government is winding down a program, called myRA, that tried to encourage middle- and low-income Americans to save for retirement. “There are no new initiatives or strategies coming out of the federal government at a time when the need is growing,” Prindiville said.

The second approach might mean expanding affordable housing options, creating programs to help seniors cover medical costs, and reforming the Supplemental Security Income program so that poor seniors can receive more benefits.But there does not seem to be much of an appetite for such ideas in Washington right now. In fact, the Trump administration has proposed cutting money from SSI as well as the Social Security Disability Income program.

These initiatives can make the difference between having a home—and some semblance of stability—and not. Roberta Gordon, in Corona, was barely scraping by when I talked to her. A few months later, she was much more stable. Why? She’d gotten off a wait list and been accepted into the housing-voucher program known as Section 8, which reduces the amount of income she has to put towards housing. She’s still working at 76, but she feels a little more secure now that she has more help. She knows, at least, that she’s one of the lucky ones—able, in her older years, to keep food on the table and a roof over her head.

Many Americans are opposed to helping the poor who they feel should be helping themselves. There is probably more support for providing food or temporary shelter intended to help people get through a rough patch. But, housing is something different.  Why should the government provide funds or other help in finding housing when others are working hard to rent a unit somewhere or scrap together funds to purchase a home?

But, Americans in the last century have been more willing to provide help for seniors. They have contributed to society over their lifetime. They deserve a retirement after decades of work. Society should care for the aged. This does not necessarily mean senior centers or nursing homes are welcomed everywhere; indeed, many residents do not want to live right next to one (see an example from the Chicago area). Yet, many communities also are willing to do things to help seniors stay and thus there are property tax caps or programs to help seniors pay for utilities.

Maybe this is how affordable housing will start to be addressed in many American communities: seniors will need it in the coming years and decades. Once some of this housing is present, perhaps neighbors will see it is not as bad as they feared.

Majority of older Americans want to “age in place,” not move to the city

An article profiling some suburbanites who moved to the city as older adults admits that this isn’t the path desired by most Americans:

But you didn’t move back into the city, did you? Instead, you’re doing what the vast majority of American adults prefer to do: “aging in place.” According to a recent survey of adults 45-plus by AARP, 80 percent of respondents agreed that “what I’d really like to do is remain in my local community.”

But for those willing to make the exodus, the move into Chicago proper can be extremely rewarding…

Still, the Zimmermans’ move into town runs counter to overall trends. The 2015 data from the National Association of Realtors show that among “repeat buyers” (most likely to be boomers and Gen Xers), only 12 percent are buying in urban areas. An equal number are going to rural areas, 20 percent are going to small towns, but most — 53 percent — are buying in the suburbs.

And here’s a bit of a shocker: Although studies show that a third of retirees don’t expect to move at all, those who do move are not necessarily even downsizing. According to a recent survey by Age Wave, a firm that specializes in research on the aging population, only about half of retirees 50-plus who move after retiring choose a home that’s smaller; 19 percent move to a place of equivalent size, and 30 percent actually upsize.

There are always a good number of stories about urban revivals and people flocking to American big cities for the amenities and short commutes. However, the stories tend to obscure that the majority of Americans do not choose this path. When asked, many Americans say they want to live in small towns than anywhere else.

Particularly for older adults, the move to the city is probably only possible for those with significant means. Additionally, where many of those people want to move – is in nicer neighborhoods with cultural events, access to jobs, and newer construction – as opposed to living in many of neighborhoods of the city.

At the same time, aging in place in the suburbs presents unique challenges with its emphasis on single-family homes and driving. Homes can be difficult to maintain for decades and driving may not be possible at a certain point. Then, the spaciousness of the sprawling suburbs can be a significant hindrance to providing social services.

How should the 1995 Chicago heat wave deaths be commemorated?

An arts critics think about how Chicago might remember the deaths of hundreds in the 1995 heat wave:

After all, events that caused far fewer deaths have been the subject of remembrances, designed to honor those who died. July 1995 has yet to make into that civic category, but it deserves a spot. Perchance someone may convene a discussion between those who were involved in that crisis and ponder what was learned (I should note that Klinenberg also charges the media, including the management of this newspaper, with some culpability in the tardiness of the connecting of the dots, while acknowledging some formidable reportage).

More useful, though, might be an artistic response.

A commissioned symphonic piece, perhaps played outdoors. A concert honoring those who died. A dance work. Some stirring poetic words. Some deep collective thoughts from city leaders as to if, or how, the city has changed since then and where there still is work to be done. Some consideration of whether we now do a better job of taking care of each other, whatever the weather outside. It is worth the attention of the city’s artists. And politicians.

“Marking it as a historic event is important,” Egdorf said. “If only to remind people to look after their neighbors.”

Three quick thoughts:

1. Given the demographics of those who died, such a commemoration could also go a long ways toward addressing social divisions such as those involving age, class, and race. Important figures are often commemorated but what about a mass number of average residents?

2. For the social forces that contributed to who died in this particular heat wave, I recommend Heat Wave by sociologist Eric Klinenberg.

3. The idea of having an artistic response to this disaster is an interesting one. We often have solemn commemorations but this presents an opportunity to create something new of tragedy.

Intro to Sociology with 82 year old “godfather of Canadian menswear”

I imagine Intro to Sociology might be a little different with a 82 year old menswear magnate in class:

Even in his school duds — no tie, sometimes even jeans, if you can believe it — Harry Rosen was the best-dressed student this fall in Intro Sociology.

“I dress casually for class, but never without a jacket,” stated the godfather of Canadian menswear, who, at 82, decided this year to start studying humanities at Ryerson University.

He has been excused from exams because he still juggles part-time duty with his luxury clothing empire — he has a meeting Friday with a customer who still prefers to “Ask Harry,” semi-retired or not; some are now fourth-generation clients. He also fundraises for Bridgepoint Health and the University Health Network’s stem-cell team that created a research chair in his name, and serves on boards of institutions such as Ryerson…

History Prof. Martin Greig said he enjoyed the “octogenarian sitting amongst the 17- and 18-year-olds who made up the bulk of this first year course on medieval Europe. He was very attentive and seemed genuinely appreciative of my efforts. It was fun to have him there and I hope that he follows through with his intention to take my Cold War course in the winter term.”

“I love learning and I need that activity, in good measure because of my regrets at not getting a university-level education when I was young,” said Rosen, a self-taught retail mogul who went from high school straight to work, opening a modest men’s shop with his brother and then spending the next 60 years learning what he needed from carefully chosen partners.

It is good to hear about life-long learners who want to find out more about the world. Of course, this doesn’t have to happen in a college classroom. Yet, I think his example could go a long way with younger college students. With some of the figures about student learning in college and completion rates, his interaction with students might be the most valuable thing that happens in the classroom.

Building urban and suburban infrastructure better suited to the growing number of aging Americans

Emily Badger highlights a new issue: fitting existing and future infrastructure to the rapidly growing older population in the United States.

Cities everywhere need to begin recalibrating for this moment now (a better crosswalk speed, for instance, would be closer to 3 feet per second). But this generational age bomb is also arriving at precisely the worst moment to pay for those changes that will actually cost money. And then there is the problem of imagination: How do you get urban planners, transportation engineers, and anyone running around a city in their prime to picture the places where we live through the shaded eyes of an octogenarian?..

Aging Americans, Waerstad predicts, are going to experience a lot of pain before we really have infrastructure and systems in place to accommodate them, particularly in a country where we’ve spent decades creating communities that can only be navigated by car. And then what?…

The biggest challenge, though, won’t come from neighborhoods like Harvard Square, where a couple of curb cuts and some slower crosswalks could actually make a difference. It will come from suburban communities where there are often no sidewalks at all, let alone places to go at the other end of them…

The prospect of an aging suburbia poses a challenge to the whole way we’ve been designing communities in America, not just how we lay crosswalks and print tiny-font bus schedules. Waerstad argues that the demographics of monetary power in America will play a crucial role. More than half of the discretionary income in the United States belongs to people who are older than 50. And so the same spending might that helped create suburbia will soon be clamoring to reinvent it, to create town centers that actually have stores and doctor’s offices, to turn residential neighborhoods into something more diverse, to expand transit access.

Several good points made in this article. Aging is a cultural as well as physical issue. It would be interesting to discuss further how major cities and new developments do take this American emphasis on youth and translate into design. How would a new condo building look different? How about a new streetscape? Second, critics of suburbia have pointed this out for quite a while: American suburbs require driving, which tends to disadvantage those who can’t drive. Sociologist Herbert Gans noted this way back in his early 1960s classic The Levittowners when noting that teenagers and the elderly are stuck.

I assume there are some places we could look in order to learn about how to do this better. How do other countries tackle this? What about American communities geared toward older residents – what adjustments does Del Webb make?