Elders, senior citizens, aging Baby Boomers — no matter the term, older adults are looking for places to live that are elder friendly, says Susan Erickson, ISU Extension program coordinator with the PLaCE program (Partnering Landscape and Community Enhancement).
As Iowa communities develop comfortable, safe and accessible environments that promote physical activity and healthy lifestyles, they can become elder friendly communities that will accommodate and attract older residents as well as the dollars they can inject into the local economy.
People already are retiring to small-town Iowa, Erickson said. “If we try to attract them on purpose … others will come. If you can attract elders to your community, it does have an economic impact.”
Some economic development experts claim that one elderly couple moving to a community can have the same effect on the local economy as one good manufacturing job, Erickson noted. In any case, community design and development that meets the needs of Baby Boomers as they age allows for economic and social stability and growth of rural towns.
With funding from the Town/Craft Center, ISU Extension and the PLaCE program conducted studies of two Iowa communities that are determined to become more elder friendly — Lamoni and Polk City. Lamoni is rather isolated on the far south-central edge of Iowa in Decatur County, but has a university. Polk City, located 13 miles north of Des Moines, is growing, but is largely a commuter town. Both communities have different needs, Erickson said, but each saw economic promise in attracting and retaining older residents.
The first step is getting a new definition of “elderly,” Erickson said. “Elderly — or retired — does not mean frail.”
Then communities can figure out the resources they need and position themselves to appeal to this growing population.
Lamoni and Polk City each received about a 50-page report with suggestions for developing a range of housing choices that reflect residents’ varied abilities, independence and income. They also received recommendations for improving access to critical services and destinations — such as the grocery store, bank, library or hair salon. In addition, they received suggestions for encouraging walking as a means of transportation, social interaction and individual health.
Erickson is hoping other Iowa towns will examine these suggestions and consider becoming elder friendly communities as well.