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Seniors Stranded in Cul-De-Sacs

Hoyt legislation could stop the insanity

When the storm hit in October 2006, a whole lot of people got stuck at home. Among them were tens of thousands of elderly people who are very fortunate that the storm came in October rather than in February, because there was no life-threatening cold.

That emergency revealed the hidden consequences of 50 years of sprawl. It also revealed that there’s a new phenomenon here that local and state government had better get a much better handle on—namely, the reality that a whole lot of frail elderly people are stranded in suburban cul-de-sacs that are far away from basic services.

In 2000, about 20 percent of Erie County’s population was over 60 years of age. By 2015, over 25 percent of Erie County’s population will be over 60 years of age. There is a slow-boiling pot here that is about to boil the proverbial frog, as roughly 250,000 of our fellow citizens gradually find themselves increasingly in need of the kindness of strangers—strangers like nurses, emergency medical technicians, home healthcare aides, and the other folks whom our insurance and tax dollars will be paying to help us.

This problem would be a lot easier to address were every empty-nester and retiree to re-migrate back downtown.

Up until 1960, about three-quarters of the region’s population lived within an easy walk or a short streetcar ride of the grocery store, the doctor, the hospital, the firehouse, the church, and the library. There were about one million people living in Erie County then, and most of them lived within the roughly 100-square-mile area that encompassed Buffalo, Lackawanna, Kenmore, Williamsville, and Sloan. The rest of the county lived clustered in those mini-cities called villages, walkable communities with everything but hospitals.

Today, three-quarters of the population (which is the same size as it was almost 50 years ago) lives spread out over an area seven times as large as the 1960 footprint—an area that is still spreading out past Clarence to Newstead, past Depew and Lancaster to Alden, past Aurora to Holland and Marilla, and even down to dairy and trout-stream country in Collins.

Will the price of gasoline prevent more outward sprawl? Maybe. But at long last, this might be the year when Albany does something to stop the further self-isolation of people so far from services that the next freak ice-storm might kill them.

Will the Hoyt Bill pass this month?

For the past several decades, New York State has been investing state and federal funds in the roads that enable subdivisions to sprout wherever developers can drive to put up a racially coded “Coming Soon” sign.

Suburban governments love this “free” road money for the same reason they love the fact that Erie County pays for 1,100 miles of suburban roads—so that somebody else’s name is on the tax bill. Ditto the sewer and water lines that authorities with the name “Erie County” on them build and maintain.

Town politicians thrive on this system. But Assemblyman Sam Hoyt has been urging his Assembly colleagues to push back. The larger of the two state legislature chambers favors an end to endless growth in the state’s budget for new roads, new sewers, and other new infrastructure that keeps getting spent on ever-spreading suburbs for a static population.

Hoyt’s rationale is simple: With a shrinking population, it makes no sense to continue to invest scarce state funds in roads, bridges, and sewers that the state shouldn’t buy and can’t afford to maintain.

Hoyt’s bill is an example of the so-called Smart Growth movement that has had growing bipartisan support in Albany, but that so far has been thwarted by the developers’ lobby, which would rather keep the sprawl machine going—even if vulnerable populations of elderly people are left ever further from basic services.

“Smart growth is about good goals like land and energy conservation, but when you boil it down, it’s really about public safety,” said Hoyt. His bill has once again passed the Assembly. In 2007, it passed the Assembly but was defeated in the Republican-controlled State Senate.

We will know by mid-July whether the political winds have changed. Governor David Patterson, who has endorsed Hoyt’s bill, maintains a functional and so far cordial relationship with Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, but Bruno’s house has been the obstacle.

“State money is running scarce as it is,” said Hoyt. “We can put the brakes on sprawl and still have economic growth, but we’ve got a very practical problem—we’re never going to be able to afford to keep building more and more new infrastructure for the same number of people, much less a smaller number. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Stranding the vulnerable

During the October 2006 storm, when several hundred thousand people went as much as a week without power, we got a glimpse of why low-density redistribution of population is a problem.

What nobody ever really knew until then was that there are already tens of thousands of relatively frail elderly people living on their own, not in nursing homes or congregate settings. Independent living is a good thing—until the lights go out.

What everybody sort of knew, and now really understands due to the sharp rise in gasoline prices, is that these same folks are totally dependent on cars. They are also unaccustomed to public transportation, and are still paying for the privilege of living in communities where—unlike city neighborhoods—there is no such thing as a commercial strip where you walk to the bank, the drug store, the dentist, the coffee shop, the senior center, and the hardware store. Suddenly, real estate that is isolated from social networks and basic supplies doesn’t look so safe or so smart.

For the generation that came of age in the 1950s, their achieved ideal of cul-de-sac living means that today, they are stranded far from the rest of life.

They’re also isolated from the people in the private agencies whom the state and county will rely on to help the cul-de-sac tribe as it ages.

Buffalo study group

According to a study led by Pamela Krawczyk when she was Erie County Commissioner of Senior Services, the frail elderly tend to move back to Erie County for family and services. Baby boomers may not move out of the area at the same rate as their parents did—notwithstanding the burst bubble of Sunbelt real estate—because it’s still a whole lot more expensive to buy a place in Florida or Hilton Head than it is to keep a paid-off house here in the land where global warming is a fond hope.

More folks will age in place here because there’s no affordable alternative.

Krawczyk is now a part of a study called CODA, or Creating Options for Dignified Aging. It’s funded by the Community Healthcare Foundation of Western and Central New York, which is investing considerable effort (and money) in tracking the problem.

One gets the feeling that everybody in the care-giving community understands the issue—but that few elected officials get it.

David Dunkelman, the director of the Weinberg Campus, is also part of the community-wide review of what’s here and what’s ahead. For him, the October 2006 storm was a searing experience. Power outages hit Amherst hard. Police brought frail seniors in from all over Amherst, including some for whom there was no room at suburban hospitals. Meanwhile, Dunkelman faced the challenge of finding ways to get his staff—especially his housekeeping staff—from their own cold homes in the central city out to Amherst.

“Emergencies show us what we need to work on,” said Dunkelman. “And this region has a great deal of work to do.”

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