Most American cities are falling all over themselves to attract young people and many lists that compare and rank cities reflect the younger perspective. But the fact of the matter is the nation is getting older as birth rates drop and longevity improves, and many cities aren’t doing enough to prepare for an aging demographic. By 2040, the nation’s over-65 population is expected to be about double what it is today and will represent 20% of the total country. Everyone can’t just go move to Florida.
In fact, according to the Milken Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, up to 90% of older adults want to or plan to “age in place,” or stay right where they have always been when they get older. This is why its researchers have created a new ranking of the “best cities for successful aging” that aims to avoid the traditional tropes of warm, sunny skies and affordable living that define most “best spots to retire” lists.
“To age in place successfully, older adults must enjoy environments that support health and productivity and the ability to live purposeful, contributing lives,” the authors write. It also “recognizes the new economic and social reality” that many older adults want to continue paid employment.
The index, which looks at 352 cities in the U.S., is built from public data and combines 84 indicators across eight weighted categories that contribute to the quality of life of older adults (read more about the methodology here). Examples of data used include crime rates, number of doctors and assisted-living facilities, transit fares, rental housing, and volunteer opportunities.
Many of the index’s top cities, such as Omaha, Nebraska, and Salt Lake City, Utah, aren’t normally considered retirement havens, and often didn’t even have great weather. Cities with major universities–which offer education, arts, and culture opportunities, employment, and often have large health care systems, research hospitals, and good transit options–often did particularly well. When you think about it, an elderly person’s needs aren’t that different than a college student’s.
The top of the list for large cities, for example, was Madison, Wisconsin. It got points for its 11 hospitals, specialty care availability, and short emergency room waits. It also has a low crime, low poverty for older adults, relatively low income inequality. Older adults could also live healthy lifestyles there, often commuting by foot, accessing many fitness, museum, library and recreation facilities as well as education opportunities at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Of course, it only ranked 98 in the weather category, and it also fell down for its relatively high cost of living for the Midwest and prevalence of fast food outlets.
Contrast this with the surprisingly poor showing of Florida’s Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford metro region, which ranked only 85 out of 100 large cities (a separate ranking was made for the 252 smaller cities the researchers evaluated). Even though it is ranked highest among the 100 cities for its Medicare enrollment, it has relatively poor access to doctors and health facilities, a high crime rate, and a relatively high proportion of elderly people living in poverty. Public transit is poor, and there aren’t many public libraries, among many other statistics.
The nation’s major metro areas, which are also where the largest portion of Americans will likely age, clearly still have work to do. The Milken Institute hopes to engage them with its mayor’s pledge, where it asks U.S. mayors to commit to improving policies, investments, and services that serve and enable older adults.
Some mayors are paying more attention to the needs of aging populations. For example, New York City Mayor De Blasio’s new housing plan pays heed to the coming “aging tsunami” with special attention to senior housing. Simple policies also make a difference. Age-Friendly NYC, also a project from the De Blasio’s office and the city council, has created “aging improvement districts.” One of its aims is to install more benches all over the city.
The Milken Institute ranks large cities and small cities, with more information available for every city. It also breaks down the rankings into two sub-indexes, one for people age 65 to 79 and one for over the age of 80, since a recent retiree has different needs than the very elderly. You can explore all of their data here.