As North Carolina recovers from Hurricane Matthew, the state has an opportunity to distinguish itself as a leader in the age-friendly community development movement. In age-friendly communities, housing and all public, private and commercial spaces, as well as the physical infrastructure, are redesigned to ensure equal opportunity of access for all age groups, especially older adults.
Hurricane Matthew affected more than one-third of North Carolina’s 100 counties and a mix of urban, suburban and rural communities. Our response should be to improve the livability of the affected communities for their growing senior populations.
For the 10 counties designated as eligible for federal temporary housing assistance following the hurricane (Bladen, Columbus, Edgecombe, Harnett, Hoke, Johnston, Pitt, Robeson, Sampson and Wayne), older adults accounted for 63 percent of net population gains between 2010 and 2015. All three elderly subgroups in these communities – ages 65-74, 74-84 and 85 and older – grew more rapidly than the total population. And in three of the counties (Bladen, Columbus and Edgecombe), all three subgroups grew rapidly while the overall population declined, underscoring the urgent necessity for an age-friendly recovery strategy.
As the legislature frames recovery plans, how should dollars be spent in the affected counties?
First, most older adults prefer to age in their homes and communities for as long as possible. North Carolina officials should invest recovery dollars in redevelopment strategies that reduce the likelihood of life-threatening falls, which often result in costly trips to emergency rooms, extended hospital stays and long-term placements in institutionalized care.
Second, spend temporary housing assistance dollars on modular housing instead of manufactured mobile homes. Modular homes can be built according to age-friendly or universal design principles and are far more energy efficient than mobile homes. If permanent relocation is determined to be the best strategy to mitigate future disaster risks, modular homes can be relocated almost as easily as mobile homes. And when all costs are taken into consideration, modular homes might be cheaper than mobile homes.
Third, disaster recovery managers should stipulate that recovery work for senior housing must be done by contractors who have demonstrated expertise in universal design construction or are certified aging-in-place specialists. This will ensure renovated and newly constructed housing, commercial structures and public buildings are easy to visit by all age groups, especially seniors.
Fourth, transportation planners overseeing physical infrastructure recovery must insist rebuilt roads and highways are easy to access and signage is large and readable. Streets should be redesigned for multiple modes of mobility (cars, buses, bikes, skate boards, wheel chairs) and pedestrian crosswalks should offer extended walk times to accommodate older adults and others with disabilities.
Fifth, parks and recreation officials must ensure these communities feature accessible open spaces, playgrounds and fitness parks. All community residents should be able to engage in active living by design, including grandparents raising grandchildren – one of the most rapidly growing household types of the new millennium.
Achieving these age-friendly outcomes will require a comprehensive review and evaluation of local building codes, zoning ordinances, land-use laws and housing policies, and residential life and business development regulations. Disaster recovery managers should consult the checklist developed by AARP for additional insights regarding how to lead age-friendly community development.
James H. Johnson is a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. Amanda Whittemore Martin is a doctoral student at UNC-CH. Valerie Jurik-Henry, an independent living strategist, also contributed to this report.