Survey Reveals Limits on Mobility for Region's Elderly

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 16, 2006

Those who work with the elderly agree: A key to independence in later years is the ability to visit friends or run errands without having to rely on the help of others.

Now along comes a study showing that Northern Virginia needs to do much more if it hopes to meet that standard for its burgeoning senior population. A survey of more than 1,600 Northern Virginia residents 75 and older shows that a great majority of seniors in the area depend almost entirely on cars to get around, which in many cases means they must find someone to give them a ride when they want to go somewhere. As a result, the survey found, seniors in the more suburban and exurban areas that dominate the region are more likely to remain at home than those who live closer to urban areas.

Officials said the survey, conducted by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, indicates that the region needs to expand transportation services for seniors and encourage seniors to live within walking distance of services or transit lines.

"It's a very eye-opening study, and it points us to the future. We've got some challenges we've got to meet," said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), who is also chairman of the commission, which includes representatives from Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties and the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax and Falls Church. "For seniors, mobility is one of the most critical links they have. Absent mobility, their independence is threatened, and for many, it's the difference between independent living and assisted living."

The percentage of the population that is 65 and older is expected to nearly double in Northern Virginia by 2030, from one in every 13 residents to one in seven. Other parts of the country are also aging, but fast-growing suburbs such as Northern Virginia face a particular challenge, Connolly noted, because they have been designed primarily for younger, working-age residents and their families. And most of the population growth in the region has been in the more traditionally suburban and exurban parts, which lend themselves least to walking and transit use.

The survey found a clear difference between the lives of older residents in those areas, which hold 91 percent of the region's 65 and older population, and the lives of those in the more urban or town-like parts, such as Arlington, Old Town Alexandria and downtown Leesburg, home to only 9 percent of that age group. Seniors 75 and older in the more densely developed areas reported taking 20 percent more trips outside their homes each week than those in the other areas, and only 16 percent of them reported not leaving the house the previous day, compared with 22 percent from the other areas.

In addition, three times as many of the elderly in the more urban areas reported having walked to a destination in the past week than did those in the other areas.

Grace Starbird, director of the Fairfax Area Agency on Aging, said the survey results showed a near-term need to expand existing public transportation, including bus lines, MetroAccess van service for the disabled and senior-focused shuttle services provided by local governments.

But in the longer term, she said, the region needs to concentrate more on putting seniors and the services they need -- especially transit -- in closer proximity. "Taking the initiative now to better design communities to be senior-friendly will have a payoff far into the future," she said.

There are signs such thinking is taking hold. The controversial MetroWest proposal for 2,250 homes near the Vienna Metro station, for instance, dedicates a significant portion of homes to those 55 and older.

In too many cases, though, housing developments for older residents are still being planted in more remote locations, said Arlington Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman (D), who is on the transportation commission.

"That's really not the appropriate place" for senior housing, he said. "It's clear that what older people want is to live where they have access to things, so that when they're not able to drive, they won't be dependent on someone else."

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