While seniors (over the age of 55) are a growing population nationwide, according to the last US Census (2000), seniors are “disappearing” from the Kennett Borough. The greater Kennett InterGen Coalition was created to find out why the Borough was losing its seniors and to find ways to encourage seniors to stay in the community.
Studies of small towns such as Kennett Borough indicate that one of the most important components for a high quality of life is the effort of seniors in the community. Rice and Elder (1999) reveal that one of the major indicators of the quality of life in small towns is the community’s appearance. Rice’s and Elder’s investigations note that such communities usually rely on high volunteer populations of senior citizens who contribute to such efforts. Hanson and Emlet (2006) further report that seniors contribute with time, knowledge, skills, and finances to the well-being of their communities. The literature points out that those small towns which have few seniors are those that fail to thrive, for the reason that seniors are major contributors to the community, playing a critical role in its well-being and vitality.
So, why are our seniors disappearing from small towns? Although the research literature demonstrates that older citizens prefer to remain in their homes and “age-in-place,” there are problems that encourage seniors to seek long-term care solutions. In 2009, the InterGen Coalition, under a grant from Kendal at Longwood, commissioned the geriatric research firm of Jean Moreau and Associates to survey the greater Kennett area to obtain answers to this question. From this survey, administered to seniors who had incomes over $35,000 in the greater Kennett area, and to seniors who had incomes under this amount who lived only in Kennett Borough, we learned that the majority of respondents preferred to age-in-place. The problems seniors identified with living in the greater Kennett area included lack of sufficient transportation, access to senior services, insufficient alternatives for housing, and difficulties with the maintenance of house and garden. Of these problems, that of senior housing alternatives is perhaps the most critical for keeping people in the community. In Kennett Borough, for example, the majority of the existing housing stock is old and in need of constant care. Area seniors reported that home maintenance was becoming increasingly burdensome and was one of the major reasons why they would consider moving out of their home.
There are few options for seniors who are looking for housing with services in the greater Kennett area. Currently, there are 55 Plus “communities” (for people who are over age 55) and nursing homes in Kennett and New Garden townships, with nothing in between. There are few, if any, provisions for senior apartment living, group homes, or congregate care. The nearest HUD-sponsored affordable housing — Luther House — is in Jennersville. While many residents of Luther House come from Kennett Square and acknowledge that they are within easy driving range, it is far enough away to prevent seniors from investing time and energy in their old community. Furthermore, with the construction of Luther House and nearby Jenner’s Pond, Jennersville has built new shopping, businesses, and educational institutions (including expansion of the YMCA) that serve both the senior and the community at large.
What are the major planning and zoning issues that are barriers for senior housing? In our two years of growing as a coalition of nonprofits and governmental officials, the InterGen Coalition has identified four such barriers: transportation, parking, location in the community, and the provision of other types of uses outside of residential associated with senior housing.
Transportation throughout all of southern Chester County is a major issue. While there are two forms of public transportation – Scoot, a public bus running along Old Baltimore Pike from Rte 52 to Lincoln University, and Rover, a reservation-only bus serving seniors and people with disabilities – these do not appear to fulfill the needs of seniors because they do not provide either regular schedules throughout the day (Scoot) or are unpredictable with regard to pickup after appointments. Also, although it has been recognized that walking trails and sidewalks provide opportunities for recreation, they also can provide increased mobility to nearby destinations. The majority of the townships outside of the Borough of Kennett Square, however, do not provide sidewalks or pedestrian/bicycle paths for leisure purposes, never mind pedestrian access to destinations, such as schools, stores or churches. The InterGen Coalition has begun investigating how non-profit organizations can supplement transportation needs, especially in more rural areas. With respect to trail systems, this can be an opportunity for the Kennett Area Regional Planning Commission to explore prime locations for senior housing that has walking access.
It has been demonstrated, throughout a number of communities nationally, that senior developments and traditional residential development do not have the same parking needs. Why, then, should they have the same parking requirements? Communities in Southern California participated in a 2006 study regarding parking and found that, depending upon the age group of the senior residents, the parking needs were usually reduced to one space per dwelling unit (rather than the more traditional 2/du). A few of the towns pointed out, however, in more upscale congregate care facilities, that more residents held onto their cars, even though they rarely drove them. For housing for older and less wealthy seniors, however, the reduced parking has worked satisfactorily. Locally, Luther House, in Jennersville, uses this ratio for residents 62 years old and above.
Locations for senior housing have traditionally relied on availability of land and how well it could be developed. The InterGen Coalition has been looking at key components for bringing together residents — places for people to meet and talk with one another are important for all communities. These take a range of shapes from cafes to community centers, but all provide social connections, especially near senior housing. In the case of Kennett Borough, which already has a library, three bookstores, and a number of churches, stores and restaurants, the opportunity for senior housing is ripe with anticipation. Using the Jennersville model for less dense areas of the townships where public transportation may not be available, locating senior housing near institutions such as schools, hospital/medical centers and churches, as well as shopping, can provide more mobility and independence to people who may no longer be able to drive.
Multiple uses on a single site are frowned upon in local planning and zoning documents, mostly because these complicate parking requirements. From an anti-sprawl standpoint, however, multiple uses in senior housing – such as residential and meeting space for activities such as a senior center, special medical clinics, adult day care, etc. – provide built-in opportunities for a variety of senior-related activities. It also provides an opportunity for the adjacent community to use the facility as a community center or local destination.
In conclusion, modifications to local planning and zoning ordinances that allow for senior housing not only provides opportunities for our seniors to remain in their communities, but also improves the quality of the community for all.
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