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Rue 89, France

Elderly Americans Stuck at Home?
Serves Them Right

By Hélène Crié-Wiesner

Translated By Leah Brennan

5 April 2012

Edited by Tom Proctor

France - Rue 89 - Original Article (French)

This is what they wanted: their towns spread far apart, no public transportation, no sidewalks, with houses with two-car garages that are miles away from supermarkets and doctors. Now, the baby boomers are aging. They can no longer drive, and some regret their decisions.

Nothing really new here. However, an article by the Associated Press released in late March, reprinted in many American newspapers and heavily commented on online, carries this disturbing headline: "Few American Cities Are Ready for Aging Baby Boomers.”

The generation born after the war wished to leave the inner cities to settle in the suburbs, in houses surrounded by gardens and in “subdivisions” or “communities" where public transportation does not exist, to avoid the risk of introducing strangers to the neighborhood.

Living Away From the Hectic World

Everything one needs to live — shops, schools, hospitals, companies and services — is far away and accessible only by car.

The goal was to live quietly at home, away from the public places where people are forced to mix. This style of living has lasted for several decades.

Today, however, this trend is ebbing; urban planners work differently, and "suburban" housing is less popular. People have begun to consider living in city centers, comprised of the high buildings that Americans hate. More and more municipalities consult their constituents on whether to build streetcars, which require taxes.... It is a cruel dilemma.

But seniors are panicking. They are growing more numerous in the country: Between 2000 and 2030, the number of people over the age of 65 is expected to double to 72.1 million (of approximately 363 million inhabitants). Most of them will still have their parents, aged 80, 90 or older. There are a lot of centenarians in the U.S.

“You Depend on Your Children. Fuck”

Today, the population of older Americans is lower than it will be when the baby boomers age. The elderly today have more children to care for them, and the baby boomers realize that they are entering old age in the midst of a recession.

The social services that help their parents today are disappearing due to a lack of funding. Where it does exist, public transport is deteriorating because of the crisis; it is often unsuitable for users with reduced mobility.

A contributor to the environmental website Grist crudely summarizes the dilemma: “There comes a point when you can’t legally drive any longer. And if you depend on your car, that means you’ll have to… depend on your children instead. Fuck.”

In a downtown, somewhat decaying neighborhood in Houston, Texas, where I lived for several years, I often saw a charity-owned van that stopped each weekday around 10 a.m. at the same houses. Here lived the elderly, receiving hot meals courtesy of a program partly financed by the city and churches.

Because of the Crisis, Aid Is No Longer Financed

Meals on Wheels exists in more than a thousand cities in the United States. This non-profit organization depends largely on volunteers, but it still must pay for food, cars and some permanent staff. Since 2008, government grants have been in a free fall, and so has free food. What will these elderly people still living at home eat now?

Another service supporting the lives of millions of American seniors is Dial-a-Ride. Cities of a certain size have vans equipped to transport wheelchairs in order to transport elderly and sick individuals who request the service.

It costs money, but it’s much cheaper than taking a taxi to the doctor. Doctors do not make house calls in the United States; nurses also do not, unless you pay the price. And in this case, medical insurance pays nothing.

The services provided by Dial-a-Ride are becoming more and more expensive or, in some cases, disappearing altogether, as municipalities can no longer afford to maintain fleets of vehicles and drivers. So how do older people access treatment?

No Salvation for Disbelievers

Here, too, social services are supplemented by churches and their volunteers. But they have also seen their funds — based on donations of the faithful — dwindle. In addition, how are aged atheists, who never wanted to associate with a place of worship, supposed to fare?

Whether they live in the suburbs or downtown, the elderly can no longer get around without a car, assuming they still have their driver's license (which must be renewed every five years beginning at 55 years of age, with a review of vision and traffic laws from state to state).

Fortunately, American cars have automatic transmissions, which is easier for drivers of a certain age. But the road is dangerous ground. The spokesman of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging explained to the Associated Press what it would take to improve the situation for older drivers:
- Install road signs that are easier to read
- Among senior citizens, implement carpooling programs to the hospital and supermarket

Boomers Caught in Their Own Trap

It is clear that the geographic isolation of the elderly is not a uniquely American problem. But the number of senior citizens affected by this issue is colossal in the United States, where nothing was properly thought out when there was still time.

As said on Grist, “Judging by how pedestrian-unfriendly the average American city has become, all our aging parents apparently enjoy being prisoners in their own homes.”

The economic crisis prevents most cities from engaging in the necessary programs, especially the construction of collective transport. We see now that it was not such a good idea to build cities in the country and rely exclusively on cars to connect the poles.



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