IN HIS 30s AND 40s, Mark Noonan, like most of his peers, assumed he’d retire at 62, or maybe even as early as 59. As an executive for tech companies in Oregon and California, he’d worked hard his entire adulthood, and he was confident he’d have a hefty 401(k) to tap as he whiled away the rest of his days cooking, camping, or traveling.
Then his wife died in an accident at age 49. And although Noonan, then 51, realized for the first time how fleeting life could be, he also realized his life might just turn out to be quite long. If he lived to 78.1, the average life expectancy of Americans, he’d better make the rest of his time really matter, he thought. And suddenly his long-held ideals about what it meant to grow old—make money, retire, get sick, spend said money on increased health care needs—didn’t seem all that appealing.
So he quit his job at age 52 and earned a degree in gerontology from Portland Community College. In his three decades as a Portlander, Noonan had lived in Cornelius, Hillsboro, Aloha, and Beaverton, but he moved to a one-bedroom apartment downtown, across from the Portland Art Museum. He took a job as a program specialist for Elders in Action, a local senior advocacy group founded in 1968. “I can imagine doing this until I’m 70—it keeps me young,” says Noonan, who is now 55.
And when he turns 70? He just might find a third career.
This all may sound like just another midlife crisis, but according to Noonan and others his age, it represents a general shift in baby boomers’ beliefs about what it means to age in our city, our state, and the country at large. “As boomers move toward retirement, they want to have a mix of experiences,” he says. “A lot of them don’t want to quit work all the way. We want to really craft this next phase of our lives rather than be on the treadmill. That’s why there’s a big movement in the country toward encore careers.”
Noonan says he and his peers are also rethinking where and how they want to live in their later years. “I grew up in small-town Montana, but I’m having the biggest small-town experience living in the core of Portland. I know the people who make my coffee every morning. My barber’s down the street. I’m connecting with my community. Boomers are drawing from their old commune days and pushing new models. They’re thinking about buying big houses together in urban areas, or creating guided communities where they live independently, but in a supportive environment.”
They live in the right place. When it comes to re-examining how we age, few cities are better poised to lead the way than Portland. Last year, AARP The Magazine named Portland one of the top five places to live and retire (along with Atlanta; Boston; Milwaukee; and Chandler, Arizona), based, among other things, on our cutting-edge urban-planning philosophy, our large number of mixed-use developments, and our accessible public transportation. In 2006, Portland was the only American city to participate in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Age-Friendly Cities Project, a global study that identified solid indicators of an age-friendly city—everything from creating green spaces to offering priority seating for elderly passengers on public transportation and ensuring “psychological safety” in urban environments.
Portland is also home to some of the nation’s foremost visionaries on aging, including Margaret Neal, a Portland State University (PSU) gerontology professor who directs the school’s Institute on Aging and volunteered the city for the WHO study. Neal recently partnered with Multnomah County, the Oregon Department of Transportation, and Metro (Portland’s regional government) to study how the city’s imminent population shift will affect housing and transportation. The Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area’s population of people 65 and older is projected to more than double by 2030, according to Neal’s study for Metro 166,119 to 394,406 (with another 556,805 people falling between the ages of 45 and 64).
Portland may eventually attract more seniors than other cities because it’s the urban core of a state whose long-term-care system has been widely held as the most progressive in the country—it’s certainly one of the oldest.
PSU founded its Institute on Aging in 1969, becoming one of the nation’s first academic institutions to focus its research on seniors. Karen Brown Wilson, one of the institute’s gerontology professors, is credited with having invented the concept of assisted living in the late 1980s as an alternative to nursing homes. Assisted-living facilities provide semi-independent apartments to older adults who don’t require intensive medical and nursing care, but who may need help with daily needs like dressing, bathing, eating, or using the toilet. But in order to fully develop these facilities as well as other, less expensive alternatives, Oregon officials had to come up with funding.
At the time, the federal government allowed Medicaid recipients to use their Medicaid dollars to pay for long-term care only in nursing homes. In 1981, Richard Ladd, then-director of the state’s Seniors and Disabled Services Division, successfully petitioned the feds to allow Oregonians to use Medicaid to pay for any kind of long-term care, making ours the first state to do so. As a result, the number of older adults in nursing homes dropped significantly, and the state used the diverted federal money to develop a diverse long-term-care system that would address a whole spectrum of needs for seniors. By the late 1980s, Oregon had become the only state spending more on community- and home-based services than on nursing-home care. New alternatives ?like adult-care homes (run by one or more caregivers who look after no more than five older or disabled adults at a time) began to proliferate—some 580 adult-care homes today exist in Multnomah County alone. And other states began creating similar systems based on Oregon’s groundbreaking Medicaid waiver.
But now that baby boomers have begun to retire, even Oregon’s groundbreaking models are becoming outdated. “Being 65 in 2008 is different from being 65 in 1950,” says Robert Liberty, the Metro councilor for District 6. “And it’s definitely going to be different than being 65 in 2030. So, first, maybe we shouldn’t even talk about people who are 65 as being seniors at all.”
Liberty also points to Neal’s study for Metro, which proved that older Portlanders are more likely to live in the suburbs and that, on average, baby boomers comprise a somewhat higher share of the suburban population here than they do elsewhere in the nation. Yet seniors want to be able to benefit from a more compact, dense, transit-served, mixed-use, urban setting. Suburbs will have to become more urban as our population ages, Liberty says. If not, more people may begin moving to the urban core, as Mark Noonan has.