Baby Boomers looking to retire in livable, age-friendly communities

TML Communications Specialist

With the last of the Baby Boomer generation reaching retirement age in the next 12 years, municipalities across the country are working to make sure they can meet the needs of their aging populations.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in five Americans will be at retirement age in 2030 as the last of the baby boomer generation turns 65. This will be the first time in U.S. history that the number of residents aged 65 and older will outnumber those 18 and under. By 2035, there will be 78 million Americans over the age of 65 compared to only 76.4 million under the age of 18. In 2060, there will be 2.5 working adults for every one person retired.

Rebecca Kelly, state director for the Tennessee Chapter of AARP, said many communities across the nation are already working to address the challenges aging populations could present.

“It’s no secret our country is aging quickly and dramatically,” she said. “In the next 30 years, we are going to see some dramatic changes in our population. We are aging as a country, aging as a state, and we are aging in most counties in our state. Tennessee is much like the rest of the country, and in 70 counties surveyed, the median age of residents was older than in previous years. We have to ask if our communities are ready for people to age there and live there until they die.”

Surprisingly, Kelly said AARP research has found many of the same factors older residents want in a community are the same things that are drawing younger residents to the area.
“What is good for older individuals is often good for attracting millennials,” she said. “They both want communities that are walkable; have easy access to public transportation; have diverse types of housing, people and incomes; and are close to shops, offices, residents, and amenities. According to AARP, a livable community is one that is safe and secure, affordable with appropriate housing, has transportation features, and has supportive community services and features. It’s not just about housing and transportation; it’s also about urging older residents to stay engaged as long as they can and will.”

To help communities achieve their livability goals, Kelly said AARP has created a livability index that works as a web-based tool to score communities based on what they have to offer older residents. The site also provides resources on how to improve resources. Senior citizens have also used the tool to determine if they want to live in a community.
Another AARP resource is the Age-Friendly Network, a group of more than 250 cities across the nation that have pledged to make their communities more friendly toward aging residents. In Tennessee, the cities of Chattanooga, Livingston, Kingsport, Knoxville, and Memphis have already joined the network with others in the application process.

Kelley said the network is designed around eight domains of livability created by the World Health Organization (WHO). The eight domains include transportation, outdoor spaces and buildings, community support and health services, civic participation and employment, social participation, housing, communication and information, and respect and social inclusion. The domains are split into two categories: social environments and built environments.

The city of Kingsport was the first municipality in Tennessee to join AARP’s Age-Friendly Network. Kingsport Mayor John Clark said being part of the network has helped the city better understand what assets it already has and where it can make improvements.

“Our city turned 100 years old last year, and over those 100 years there has been a lot of progress made in Kingsport from a livability perspective,” Clark said. “For me, livability is just another term that means quality-of-life. You have to recognize that people have choices, and that they can pick and choose where they want to live, work, play, and raise a family. We are a big employer for our whole region, but we recognized we needed to offer things outside of just jobs. We wanted to be not just a commuter town but a vibrant 24/7 city. Being a part of this network helps us understand what other cities are doing around the country, share information, learn from each other, and then apply what makes sense for Kingsport.”

Knoxville Community Development Director Becky Wade said both big and small cities can benefit from network resources.
“Just like Kingsport, we know we are competing,” Wade said. “The city of Knoxville is focused on equity for all people. It is important to us that everyone can take part and participate in the wonderful amenities we have here. Being part of the Age-Friendly Network encourages us to focus on those things and keep us truly working toward making our city livable for all people. We are also using some of the tools they provide for us. It is great to be able to compare what other cities are doing for housing, health, transportation, and other issues to explore best practices.”

Livingston Mayor Curtis Hayes said not every aging residents has relatives nearby they can depend on for help. As a result, municipalities may have to fill in some of the gaps needed to keep older residents in their homes and communities.

“Like all small communities, we are a community with an aging population,” Hayes said. “AARP is providing us with tools and resources that we need. We are going to have an open town hall meeting coming up to focus on some areas to help us with our older residents. One things that really got my attention on this issue was my mother. A lot of people in her age group don’t have anyone to help them. This tool will allow us to reach out to our aging community and help with what they need.”

Clark said health care and education are two of Kingsport’s strongest features as well as its industry. Safety is another focal point for the community.
“What we are trying to do is continue focusing on our strengths, what makes us appealing and attractive, so we can retain and attract those core customers – residents, businesses, developers, and visitors,” Clark said. “That is really the life line of a city. We have taken an inventory of what we currently have and what are the things we need to expand our portfolio, to make us a more compelling city for people to spend their lives in.”

Hayes said Livingston has been focusing on improvements to public spaces, community events, and social events.
“We added a park with a splash pad and while the seniors aren’t using that, their grandkids certainly are,” Hayes said. “We have a walking track and outdoor exercise equipment. We have gotten great reviews of our new Central Park. We are also located near a state park where people can fish and paddle boat.”

Livingston has also partnered with its local development district for a bus service that provides older residents with transportation options. Residents can pay $1 for a trip to the store, doctor’s office, or other destinations and then $1 for the return trip.

Making transportation and walkways more accessible to those of all ages and abilities is one of the issues Wade said Knoxville has been focusing on.
“We are striving to make more and more bus stops accessible and put more bus shelters in place. That encourages more ridership, and we have seen that increase in ridership. We have also focused on sidewalk replacement. Like a lot of southern cities, we don’t have sidewalks everywhere so that infrastructure is needed. We are part of the Complete Streets Consortium, so when we build a street we make it truly walkable and accessible. Curb cuts have to meet ADA standards and sidewalks are wide enough for everyone to use.
Adequate housing that suites the needs of multiple generations is an issue many cities are facing as their communities age. Clark said housing has been a challenge for Kingsport, especially as different generations look for different types of housing. Developing apartments, developing old housing stock, and new developments are all parts of keeping the balance.

“Millennials don’t typically jump right into a mortgage; they rent for a while,” Clark said. “There is a reason for that. When I started my first job, I was pretty much guaranteed a pension working for 30 years at a major corporation. That no longer happens. Millennials aren’t tied into the idea that you get your first job and then go out and buy a house. They want to live somewhere, figure out if that location offers the experiences they are interested in, and then decide to live there a while. We want to provide great housing opportunities for those of all income opportunities. All of those income levels are important to our city, and all of those residents want to have a great quality of life.”

Wade said Knoxville, through the use of federal funds, has been working to improve its stock of public and low-income housing. As the city contributes grant funding toward these projects, Wade said the city can then put stipulations on construction that allows houses to continue meeting the needs of their residents as those residents age.

“We ensure that houses are at a minimum visitable,” she said. “That means at least one zero-step entrance on the ground floor, wider doorways, and a bathroom that is accessible on the main level. What that has done for our city is helped people stay in their homes and age in place. That’s what people want to do. It is to our benefit for residents to stay in their homes longer, and really improves their quality of life. One of our issues is a shortage of affordable rental houses, and so the more people who can stay in their home the less people are looking for other options.”

Knoxville also has a grant program that aims to help seniors stay in their homes longer. The program provides funds for wheelchair ramps, retrofitting bathrooms to accommodate accessibility issues, and other modifications to benefit elderly residents.

“This not only helps residents with their housing needs,” she said. “It helps our community as a whole.”

Clark said the best way to begin making a community more age-friendly is seeking input from those who are invested in the issue.
“We have to provide a great lifestyle that is attractive to all segments of the population,” Clark said. “What is important is that you identify who is in your community, your champions who represent a group of people. You have to build private-public partnerships to implement those priorities. When you do a project, you also need to market and promote that so people know and can see what you’re doing.”

Hayes said letting older residents have a voice and being open-minded to their suggestions can be a benefit to the whole community.
“It allows you to look through a different set of eyes, and really opens up your eyes,” Hayes said. “They provide a different perspective than maybe your average working-age people you usually hear from.”

For more information about AARP’s livability index or its age-friendly communities network, visit