Minneapolis oldsters, Jessica Finlay has your back.
Finlay, 28, an environmental gerontologist at the University of Minnesota, has made fascinating discoveries with broad implications for city planners, architects and builders.
In her chosen field, the one she hopes to pursue as her life’s work after getting a doctorate in 2018, Finlay’s focus is senior citizens and how they interact physically and emotionally with their homes and neighborhoods.
Finlay found that seniors love skyways, dread icy sidewalks and joke about being killed while trying to cross a busy street — even with the light and in a crosswalk.
For some, their surroundings offer a robust menu of stimulation and golden-years fulfillment. Others are fearful and isolated.
Finlay studies seniors using the statistical and demographic tools of a geographer along with the more intuitive skills of a social worker. In the past year and a half she interviewed 125 seniors living independently (average age 71) in downtown, north Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.
After she posted fliers and talked about her research at senior centers, more than 300 seniors contacted her, wanting to be included. After a sit-down interview at each participant’s house, Finlay put away her tape recorder and did a touring interview.
“I would go shopping, for groceries, to a doctor’s appointment, swimming, to child care,” Finlay said. “I sought to gauge their health status, their happiness quotient, their environment both at home and outside their houses, how they felt about their surroundings.”
The country already has 46 million older adults, and that number is going to rise as nearly 80 million baby boomers enter their AARP years.
Far from the stereotype of oldsters heading to a golf-cart retirement community in Scottsdale, more than 96 percent of America’s older adults live independently in private homes, and only 1.5 million Americans over 65 live in institutional settings, according to Finlay’s research.
For many, finances put the snowbird life out of reach. Others just prefer to hang onto their home, vowing “I’ll only leave in a gurney.”
Even a cold-weather city like Minneapolis counts those over 60 as 25 percent of the population. The 50-plus population of Minneapolis increased 9 percent from 2010 to 2015, said Christina Kendrick, who coordinates the city’s Advisory Committee on Aging.
Skyways vs. icy sidewalks
Finlay was curious to learn more about the “place” in the phrase “age in place.” She purposely chose to research Minnesota seniors, since there have been fewer studies here than in Sun Belt states.
“I’m a geographer, so I like to think that if we have certain environments we will have certain outcomes,” she said. “But it proved to be an individual’s relationship to their environment that matters a lot.”
City streets that seem perfectly normal to younger, able-bodied users may look very different to seniors, as Finlay discovered on her mobile interviews. On a short walk in her neighborhood, one woman with limited mobility knew just where to find some waist-high retaining walls where she could rest for a minute.
Others were acutely aware of high curbs, bumps or cracks in the sidewalk that could cause a debilitating fall. Things as simple and inexpensive as a bench or a shade tree were cited by interview subjects as desirable. Such landscape “microfeatures” are macro deals to many seniors.
Construction zones are terrible for elders and the disabled, Finlay said. Ditto rerouted buses.
In wintertime, with snow, ice, unshoveled sidewalks or impassable berms left behind by plows, many seniors venture out much less often, making Minnesota winters seem extra long and isolating to them.
On the plus side, seniors love the Minneapolis skyway system: They’re weather-protected, mostly accessible for those using motorized chairs or walkers, and a safe and familiar environment for shopping and exercise.
Seeing that one of her downtown subjects had a grocery mart just across the street from where she lived, Finlay noted that as an environmental plus. Then she learned that the pedestrian crossing was timed so that the woman, who uses a walker, was unable to make it to the other side before the green light turned red. As a workaround, the woman sometimes drove across the street, drove to another store, or walked three blocks up the street to a crosswalk with a longer “walk” signal. So much for convenience.
A 63-year-old woman who lives downtown told Finlay, “It’s kind of a joke in my building that we will each die on Washington Avenue, getting hit by a car.”
“The reality is that many people ... aren’t able to function at a level that’s required by the built environment,” according to Finlay. “We design Peter Pan neighborhoods, imagining that we never grow old.”
It’s the details
The built environment is, of course, just part of the picture for seniors seeking happiness and fulfillment.
In north Minneapolis, more than her other two study areas, “it was striking how the longtime resident elders benefited from being completely enmeshed in their communities,” Finlay said, whether through church, community, volunteering or intergenerational living situations.
That translated into a high “happiness” rating among North Siders, alongside complaints that “we don’t have anywhere to go.”
A food desert with no large grocery stores, the North Side also lacks coffee shops and other places to hang out. The new YMCA at Heritage Park, with its health clinic and senior center, was mentioned as a great resource by many of those Finlay interviewed.
Big issues, like adaptable housing for people of different income ranges, are important for long-term city planning, Kendrick said.
Finlay doesn’t disagree, but she urges policymakers to remember things like trees, benches, curbs and crosswalks because, she believes, “little details matter.”