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Planning now for sustainable, age-friendly communities for the graying of America can improve housing, healthcare, education and other services for all generations. As 78 million boomers start to retire, many cash-strapped Northern California communities – especially those not typically seen as retirement havens – are bracing for dramatic challenges that will force them to re-think affordable housing, medical services, public safety, transportation and other essential services. But planning prudently now can help establish cost-effective services that support both young and old, and can mean the difference between a highly livable multigenerational mecca that thrives in coming decades, and bankrupt communities that succumb to a cycle of poverty and street crime. Cities that are choosing to become more age-friendly now are positioning themselves for further growth in the future.

How will it help?

Ask boomers where they want to spend their golden years and most would say “home.” They want to stay in the communities where they raised their families, made friends, shopped and saw their family doctor.

As a significant portion of the US population edges past middle age – about 330 adults turn 60 every hour of each day – communities find themselves under pressure to evolve with aging citizens while still serving young families, working adults and local businesses. These changes come at a time when many cities are struggling with pension costs, dwindling tax revenue and an uncertain economic outlook. Younger residents worry about competing with the aging boomers for limited services in their communities. Local governments worry about serving both.

To succeed, communities will need to find low-cost ways to add affordable housing, better public transportation, walk-able neighborhoods, farmer’s markets, wellness centers, greater access to arts and culture and increased support services that address various aging issues. Some services – including multigenerational housing, community medical services and daycare – will also help fill the needs of younger adults, who face higher living costs and a shrinking job market.

Residents also bear some responsibility in the creation and sustainability of age-friendly communities. They can not only call attention to problems, but lend a hand in crafting solutions. For example, retiring boomers have valuable skills in healthcare, education and other fields. These talents can be marshaled through volunteer efforts, bolstering the ability of neighborhoods to offer health and daycare services without turning to government for support. The younger generation can return the favor by helping elders with shopping, companionship and transportation.

Currently, a handful of Northern California communities like Sacramento and Marin County – the grayest county in California – are taking the first substantial steps to be more age friendly. For example, a “complete street” policy enables bicyclists, pedestrian, transit and cars to share the road safely. However, transportation is only one piece of the aging-friendly pie. And even there, there is much work to do.

This story will identify Northern California towns that are planning for the aging of their residents, take a look at other towns that aren’t, and offer a look at what changes are in store. It will explore the potential benefits and costs for all age groups.

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