Imagine buying your dream house in the city. Over time, it transforms from a house to a home, one where you build a lifetime’s worth of memories. It’s close to the shops, to the subway station, to the community centre, and the neighbours become more like family than friends. But then it gets harder to get around. Going up and down the stairs every day is a challenge. The subway isn’t easy to navigate anymore, and the city you’ve called home for decades is suddenly not as comfortable as it once was.
This is a reality faced by thousands of people in cities every day. Current life expectancy sits at 71.5 years and while it’s no secret that we’re living longer, we’re also seeing shifts in where we’re living. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that over three million people move to cities each week. As positive as a longer lifespan might be and as strong as the draw of city life is, problems arise as these two shifts begin to clash. Our ageing generations are feeling less welcome in the very places more of us are living than ever before.
For this very reason, few see the city as a retirement destination, dreaming instead of moving to the coast or countryside. This prejudice against cities is confirmed by statistics, with 52% of participants in an ITV survey ranking London, a leading global metropolis, as a bad place to grow old. When asked to decide which decade was best to spend in London, 40% said 20 – 30. Not one respondent said 70 – 80.
It’s no surprise we feel this way. Problems for the elderly in cities are widespread and heavily impact their quality of life. Simple issues like timings at pedestrian crossings and access to public toilets are matched by the more complex, such as overcrowding on public transport. None of these are difficulties when you’re 25 and in fact, the average age of an urban planner is 44, so it’s unlikely to be something they frequently consider either. With these things in mind it becomes clear why the elderly are less inclined to remain in cities.
Another challenge is that as our life expectancy rises, so too will our retirement ages. We’ll be working longer and cities are likely to be the home to much of that work, so it’s not sustainable for them to continue disregarding the older portions of their populations.
However, if you really think about it, in many ways it is almost illogical that people need to move away when they get older. Newly retired people have oodles of free time and cities provide access to cafes, theatres, community centres, and broad swathes of cultural activity. If cities adapted to meet the needs of all inhabitants, including the ageing, many more would stay and continue to enjoy the comforts of their familiar environments.
When viewing both the problems and the potential presented by the relationship between cities and ageing populations, we see that technology and creative solutions will lie at heart of bridging current divides. Out-of-the-box initiatives such as New York University’s Home Stay programme match seniors with university students who can live with them; the students get subsidised accommodation in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and the seniors receive an additional source of income as well as help with chores like grocery shopping. Companies like CityMapper are using data to improve the flow of public transport, so we can get to where we need to go faster. An NGO in Berlin is working on an app specifically for older and disabled people which gives users the status on elevators and escalators in public transit areas, enabling quicker barrier-free movement.
On an individual level, technology is also enabling more independent living. In cities where there is a massive strain on public healthcare, smart home technologies that help to monitor patients from their home and pre-empt health incidents are invaluable. Solutions such as these can often mean the difference between staying in one’s own home or having to move to an assisted living facility.
The good news is we’re seeing the trend towards making cities more age-friendly and accessible take hold. In London for example, Oxford Street is to be fully pedestrianised by 2020, making it far easier to navigate. Groups like the Partnership for Older People Project are using new health technologies to adapt existing homes, enabling their residents to live independently for far longer than earlier possible. So as we get smarter, more creative, and in tune with the needs of all ages in a city’s population, we’re making the move to cities a chance to build a home for life, rather than just a few years.