BURLINGTON - Jean Forden said she couldn't deal anymore with living in Florida, where many younger drivers would give her "the finger" simply because she had white hair and drove more slowly than they did. Forden, 75, is a feisty ex-New Yorker who spent more than two decades managing Planned Parenthood offices in Canada before finally settling in Burlington.
"I was on the cusp of feminism," Forden said, "and now I'm on the cusp of a generation that's not going to stand for the kind of crap that happened to earlier generations."
By "crap," Forden was referring to the practice of pigeonholing everyone over the age of 65 as being elderly, infirm and, ultimately, a burden on society.
Betty Stambolian, also a seventysomething Burlingtonian, jokingly refers to herself as "an old fossil." But she has a similar gripe. "Young people assume that once you've crossed over the hill, you're a moron," she said.
Forden and Stambolian were echoing the sentiments of dozens of their fellow Burlington seniors who participated in an AARP-sponsored survey on the benefits and challenges of growing old in the Queen City. At a press conference last week at Fletcher Free Library, their message was loud and clear: Those who want to plan for the graying of Burlington must not assume that people over the age of 65 are defined solely by their age.
The AARP-Vermont study used phone surveys of 800 Burlington residents aged 45 and older, as well as seven focus groups, to look at such critical issues as housing, mobility and community engagement. According to Jennifer Wallace-Brodeur, who directed the survey on behalf of AARP-Vermont, this was the most comprehensive study AARP has ever undertaken in the United States to help a city and its various support agencies plan for the upward shift in its demographics.
According to U.S. Census data, Burlington's senior population is expected to double between 2000 and 2010. In 2003, 13 percent of Vermonters were 65 or older. By 2015, that number will rise to 15 percent. And by 2025, one in every five Vermonters will be over the age of 65.
The findings of the AARP-Vermont survey, which were released at the press conference, were fairly predictable. The majority of Burlington residents 45 years and older are homeowners living in single-family homes. By and large, driving is their primary means of getting around, and most say they plan to live in their current home for as long as possible.
Not surprisingly, the survey participants' biggest concerns revolve around their ability to remain independent, physically and politically active, and connected to their community. Most said that promoting educational opportunities for seniors is a high priority. "This was really high," Wallace-Brodeur noted. "People want to continue with lifelong learning, and it's important that these [opportunities] are continually made available in the community."
On the transportation front, Burlington residents who were surveyed said that the city ranks high for walkability and pedestrian access. However, they'd like to see increases in the number of benches, sheltered bus stops and islands, the delay times at crosswalks, and the policing of drivers who don't stop at stop signs.
When asked about housing, most of those surveyed said they want to remain independent, with financial constraints listed as their biggest obstacle to staying in the city. Most also said they'd like to see a wider range of affordable housing options. Stambolian, for example, spoke about the need for "affinity housing," which caters to retirees with shared interests, such as artists, athletes or activists.
In terms of community engagement, respondents described themselves as active members of their community, though their involvement tends to drop off after the age of 75, mostly due to health, mobility and transportation issues. Those with less education and/or in the lower-income brackets tended to be less involved than their wealthier and better-educated contemporaries.
Heidi Klein is a research consultant with the Snelling Center for Government who helped AARP gather and compile the data. Klein said one prevailing remark she heard from seniors was that they want to be defined not by the services they need to access but by the contributions they can make later in life.
After the press conference, several of the focus-group participants in attendance - all divorced or widowed women - spoke about the need to modify the language that is commonly used to discuss elder issues. All mentioned their objection to such words as "aged" and "elderly," because they conjure up images of helpless people who are no longer able to contribute to society. Such words, they said, have a negative impact as much on how elders see themselves as on how others see them.
Among the speakers was Carol L. Winfield, an 88-year-old yoga instructor who lives in Burlington. "I think, in a certain sense, the whole attitude toward aging in this country is so demoralizing to people," she said. "Our generation is kind of tossed off."
But Winfield expects that attitude to change soon, if only because listening to seniors will serve younger people's self-interest. "Because there are so many of us [seniors], we're becoming a crucial factor in finance," she said. "The people who want to make money have to pay attention to us now."