Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Healthy Aging: How Investing in Community Resources for the Elderly Helps Everyone

By Madeline LeiPublished January 10, 2022

Improved public transport and community resources can boost long-term health outcomes, enhancing physical activity and social networks.
The United States’ population is exponentially aging. Within an increasingly overburdened and expensive medical system, the U.S. must address healthcare for the elderly by focusing more on preventative healthcare methods––in particular, by improving the “built environment” through community resources.

Within the United States’ economy, those aged 65 and older are often viewed as a societal burden, as they are left with fewer healthcare options and lower-than-average living standards. With this increasingly aged population, the U.S. must consider how it will support its elderly citizens in the future, especially since research has shown that exponential population aging has been linked to both poorer health outcomes and higher healthcare costs. Additionally, preventative healthcare methods for the elderly are capable of saving immense costs for future hospital stays and expensive end-of-care programs.

The U.S. healthcare system spends the most out of all developed countries but often experiences greater health disparities than these other nations. Given that 1 in 5 Americans is projected to be 65 years old and over in 2030, it is necessary to consider how policymakers can implement cost-effective, age-friendly policies that aid seniors in aging in place comfortably, with dignity, and in ways that enhance their well-being—including with family, community, and state support.

Recently, national focus has shifted to the built environment––in other words, the resources that one grows up with––and how one’s environment can lead to various health disparities, especially in relation to socioeconomic status. The built environment impacts people in all aspects of their lives, including transportation, water and electricity, and public parks. While the built environment’s effects on health have been widely researched for younger adults, its effect on the elderly (specifically, long-term physical activity and mental illness) are of critical importance when considering this growing population. 

Previous research has found that the built environment can influence social well-being, with personal relationships being one of the most influential factors for achieving a happy life. People living in more compact urban environments ranked their happiness as significantly higher due to increased chances of socialization, while living in lower density areas led to higher rankings of feeling isolation and loneliness. Additionally, the immediate environment—including shrinking social networks—were seen to contribute to mental health issues in the elderly.

As such, the benefits of facilitating travel for seniors—including creating walkable areas—are critical to consider. Travel allows seniors to meet other people, access their workplaces, visit local shops, and attend all sorts of recreational, educational, and cultural facilities. Additionally, greater access to these facilities through public transport has proven to increase the satisfaction of daily travel, with certain travel modes that encourage physical activity also positively impacting people’s physical health. Increased access to public transport itself has been seen to contribute to increased walking to and from public transport stations, promoting both more active lifestyles and the formation of new social networks. Enabling better public transportation for seniors would not only contribute to their satisfaction and ease, but it would also benefit the community in which these resources are invested, thereby boosting long-term health outcomes.

The clear associations between urban planning and health outcomes emphasizes the necessity for national and local policies promoting age-friendly cities. However, it is also important to note that healthy aging does not only occur when an individual turns 65 years old; it is a practice that must be implemented at every age, starting from birth. Healthy aging is a continual process, not a singular task. Thus, while quality investments create healthy spaces and improved health outcomes for the elderly, they also do so for everyone who lives in the same environment. 

Enhancing residential communities through improved forms of public transport is essential: better forms of transport enhance physical activity and promote strong social networks, which is vital to consider, since elders are especially prone to social isolation. These factors are critical, not only for this population, but also for improving health outcomes across all ages. Only after considering and implementing policies that address these factors can environments truly be healing and therapeutic. While much of modern medicine aids patients when they have already faced the side-effects of aging, focusing on environmental design would embrace each patient’s social and medical needs more holistically.