The vision of a happy space for growing old may not be, in fact, a quiet gated community tucked away on a sunny plane but rather a carefully designed urban neighborhood bustling with children, parents, young professionals, and the gentle hum of grandpa’s motorized scooter all combined.”
–Jessica Finlay, Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellow
Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Aging in the Right Place

Aging in the Right Place

How is quality of living for seniors impacted by urban design and community environment?


early 90 percent of seniors want to remain in their own homes as they age, according to AARP.  Yet there is often a gap between the desire to stay in their longtime homes or communities and the ability to do so. 

Find out more about Jessica's work at the 2016 Doctoral Research Showcase! 80+ doctoral fellows will be presenting their research at this casual, conversational poster session on April 6, 2016 from 12-2 p.m. at Coffman Memorial Union. Learn more

Much of the research to date in aging communities focuses on quality of living in destination retirement locations like Arizona, California, Florida, and other warm climates and expensive properties. Yet these studies reflect the welfare of largely white, affluent populations and often do not reflect the experiences of the majority of elderly Americans.

In focusing on the places and experiences of growing old in “everyday America,” Jessica Finlay, an Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellow at the University of Minnesota, is mapping fresh terrain within geographic gerontology.

“I’m paying attention to more diverse communities. That includes lower income seniors, racial and ethnic minorities, the disabled, and older residents that do live in custom-built areas for aging,” she says.

Finlay is researching how community factors such as transportation services, built infrastructure, and neighborhood social environment impact the wellbeing of senior citizens. Her dissertation involves interviewing elderly residents of several communities within the Minneapolis metropolitan area regarding to what extent their needs are addressed or not addressed by existing services and infrastructure.

“I look at how we can facilitate safety, comfort, and independence”, says Finlay, “and how we deliver some of these staples of everyday life through more accessible home and neighborhood design.”

Although most people have never heard of geographical gerontology, it emerged in the 1970s and 1980s in academia. It has since largely faded as a field of inquiry—which is unfortunate in light of the unprecedented growth in aging populations and broad concerns in health care, social security, public policy, and civic planning in the U.S surrounding this expanding demographic.

“Policy makers are very aware of aging demographics in discussions of health care, social security, and housing, but we often don’t have data yet on everyday needs of housing for independent seniors,” says Finlay. “So I’m trying to bring this into the conversation. People are aware of the lack of appropriate housing and community infrastructure for seniors but don’t often know what to do to address the problem.”

[In]accessible design

Finlay’s scrutiny of the “built environment”—crosswalks, sidewalks, roads, buildings, homes, and even the structures within the home—has revealed that accessible design often doesn’t meet the needs of people with limited mobility.

For example, one of Finlay’s interviewees lived across the street from a grocery store. At first glance, it appeared the woman had high access to food and basic necessities, but Finlay discovered in the interview that the woman used a walker and that the crosswalk time was much too short for her to cross the street safely. More often than not, the woman would choose to drive three blocks to the grocery store parking ramp instead of crossing the street on foot.

It is these small assumptions about the abilities of most persons—what Finlay refers to as a “fictional norm”—that have big impacts on the daily activities of the elderly or anyone with limited abilities. “Even though it’s walkable to a certain person, there are assumptions embedded in that timespan from someone that is able-bodied and able-minded,” Finlay explains. “And the reality is that many people don’t match that fictional norm and aren’t able to function at a level that’s required by the built environment.”

The growing level of concern about accessibility quickly became apparent by the scores of elderly Minneapolis residents who wanted to participate in Finlay’s study. Originally planning to interview sixty seniors for her doctoral research, over 300 people contacted Finlay about participating (she expanded her project to interview 125 people total across the three case study areas). The eagerness from the elderly community to talk about accessibility in their everyday environment was a welcome surprise. “It was so interesting that people wanted to have a say and wanted to tell their story,” Finlay says.

Beyond BINGO: Staying connected in an urban environment

Finlay began her research looking at one aspect of growing old—the built urban environment—and ended up navigating the emotional and mental health issues entangled with obstacles in seniors’ living environment.

“One thing that has surprised me in my research is the prevalence of mental health issues and social isolation,” Finlay says.

The innocuous questions of mobility, accessibility, and living environment struck a chord with feelings of isolation, idleness, and the little things missing from seniors’ daily lives that really make a difference.  “I’ve seen many people who tell me about their increasing struggles with depression, anxiety, stress, coping with burdens of finances, family, health—they are really struggling.”

But planning more senior-centric activities like BINGO nights or other organized events may not be the only answer for improving quality of life for the nation’s elderly.

"A common theme throughout most of the interviews was the importance of having intergenerational social connections and interaction,” says Finlay.

“When I asked people what they wanted, they didn’t only want to be involved in social events but really wanted multi-generational engagement,” Finlay says. “They want to see children playing in the park, or go to a coffee shop and sit next to younger people working and chatting with friends. They desired basic areas that were safe to gather with people from many different ages and backgrounds.”

The future of urban planning may lean towards incorporating multifunctional designs that have something for ages five to eighty-five and beyond. The vision of a happy space for growing old may not be, in fact, a quiet gated community tucked away on a sunny plane but rather a carefully designed urban neighborhood bustling with children, parents, young professionals, and the gentle hum of grandpa’s motorized scooter all combined.

Matching great intentions to real outcomes: Informing better policies and services

In the next leg of her research, Finlay will turn her attention to experts in built environment and civic planning, which involves interviewing 10-15 community service providers, policy makers, and urban planners.

Finlay wants to ask these professionals which accessibility issues, in their opinion, are most important and compare those perceived needs to the data she has already collected about seniors’ everyday experiences.

Finlay will look for where they match up but also where there might be gaps and incompatibilities.

“One that I’m already noticing is that Minnesota provides quite extensive supportive services for seniors, but many aging Minnesotans don’t actually know about them or know how to access them. There’s a disconnect here between services that are being provided with what seniors actually feel comfortable accessing,” she says.

One of Finlay’s research goals is to help develop strategies for lifetime community planning: urban and suburban environments that support residents of all ages. Already, movements from local and national organizations are gaining momentum around providing better spaces for Americans to grow old. “A primary goal is to make multi-generational living communities where you don’t isolate older people into segregated areas; instead, aging residents can live safely and securely throughout the city or suburbs enmeshed within the local urban fabric,” says Finlay.

Finlay hopes that eventually her research can inform best practices for urban planners or developers looking to build more accessible places with integrated age-friendly community design, as well as provide information for concerned independent-living seniors grappling with the decision of whether and when to move institutional care or with relatives.

Finlay would like to find a position as a professor where she can connect these new conversations of aging, geography, and environment with younger generations.

“Many younger people people do not think much about aging,” Finlay reflects. “They might have outdated stereotypes about what it means to get old, such as decline and decay. Aging encapsulates so much more than that with the potential for vitality, creativity, and rich new experiences in later life.”

–Andrea Willgohs