By Mac McLean
Don Bruland likes living in Medford because it has a warmer climate than much of the state, it’s close to excellent medical facilities, and the Shakespeare Festival in nearby Ashland presents him with an abundance of activities that keep him busy and engaged.
But as much as Bruland, 72, enjoys the southern Oregon community he’s called home for the past 40 years, “I’m wondering what will happen if and when I’m unable to drive.”
Nearly 90 percent of Americans who are 65 or older, and 71 percent of those between the ages of 50 and 64, would like to stay in their home or community as they get older, according to a 2014 report from the AARP Public Policy Institute.
Older people’s success at reaching this goal depends on several factors, including their ability to get to the stores and medical care they use, either by walking or using public transportation.
“There are gaps and barriers,” said Bandana Shrestha, AARP Oregon community engagement director, referring to some of the obstacles that keep people from being able to age in their homes and communities. Overcoming those obstacles “will be a multisector effort, and we all will have a role to play.”
AARP Oregon will conduct a 10-stop listening tour beginning this month, during which staff and volunteers will meet with Oregonians to discuss their vision for their communities, and the impediments and solutions to aging successfully in them. Among the stops will be Portland, Woodburn, Eugene, Medford, Pendleton and Newport.
Elaine Friesen-Strang’s northeast Portland neighborhood is home to dozens of businesses she can walk to for groceries, a cup of coffee or some quick shopping.
It also has wide sidewalks, protected crosswalks and curbside ramps that make it possible for her to get places even if she were to need a wheelchair or a walker. Plus, the bus stop down the street from her house connects her to the rest of Portland through the city’s public transportation system.
“Well-designed communities provide meaningful opportunities for everyone,” said Friesen-Strang, 63, who serves as AARP Oregon president.
But while the world outside her home is conducive to aging in place, the inside is not. The three-story house has steps at each entry, narrow doorways, and no bedroom or bathroom on the main floor.
“I love these old houses, but they weren’t built with aging in mind,” she said. “It’s very difficult to find a house in an older neighborhood that is truly accessible.”
Shrestha expects to hear a lot of stories like Friesen-Strang’s on her upcoming listening tour because only 3.2 percent of the state’s housing units are equipped with an entry-level bedroom and bathroom, wide hallways and other features that make them accessible to people with limited mobility, according to the AARP Livability Index.
And while a few simple upgrades or the addition of a new downstairs room could fix these problems, that’s a job easier said than done, given the fact the state is already struggling with an affordable housing crisis. The average Oregonian is already spending 21.4 percent of their income on housing costs, according to the index, which means they have little left over to do the upgrades needed to age in place.
“We’re going to find some things will be the same throughout the state,” said Bruland, who’s also worried about Oregon’s lack of affordable and accessible housing units. “It can be a real challenge.”
To learn more about the listening tour, go to aarp.org/or or call 866-554-5360 toll-free.
Mac McLean is a writer living in Bend, Ore.