The Downtowner - Episode 06: Is Cleveland a Good Place for Successful Aging?
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I've always thought cities were great places to grow old. Exhibit A for me are my New York City friends Ed and Anne W. Ed, in his 80s, and Anne, in her 70s, keep their minds limber and their curiousity engaged through trips to the theater and continuing education classes at New York University. They don't own a car and Ed's vision has been declining for many years. But they get around easily by mass transit, taxi or Uber. Anne shops at the local grocery store, which is just blocks from their townhouse, and has her purchases delivered. They've got world-class health care institutions nearby for their medical needs.
Here in Cleveland, I've found my Exhibit B, Bob and Nancy Reid, and Exhibit C, Leesa Priah. They've moved to Downtown Cleveland to begin the "empty nest" phase of their later years.
Bob and Nancy are the Energizer Bunnies of the Warehouse District. They took part in the recent Will Run For Tacos four-mile run Downtown. They go to arts festivals and street fairs. They take exploratory walks around Downtown.
"The other day we spent two hours at the library – at the Cleveland Library. How often do you do that?" said Bob, a former sheriff of Cuyahoga County. "And then we went to a number of restaurants that we haven’t been to, during the day, just to see the atmosphere. We just love it."
They embrace Downtown living like a big adventure. They moved here nearly a year ago, selling their home of more than 40 years in the suburb of Bedford, where Bob was the city manager and chief of police (not at the same time!) and Nancy was an educator. The sale startled them. They were in contract within five days of putting the house on the market.
"I always used to joke that if I had to move in a couple of weeks, I’d be able to do it," said Nancy. "Well, God put me to the test."
(Check out the video below to watch Nancy and Bob talk about their purging process and how minimalist Nancy met her Waterloo in Bob's "ego wall.")
Leesa Priah is not as go-go-go as the Reids. She's still working and, at 55, plans to for some time, so her days are filled with obligations, not explorations. Downtown's predominant entertainment assets —its fancy restaurants, brew pubs, bars and sports venues— aren't her thing. But what I admire about Leesa is that she still finds plenty to do in Cleveland. And she shares her finds with others in a newsletter.
"I troll through all of resources we have and I gather things to do that are off the beaten path, regular things to do, in particular for minorities and people over 40," said Priah, who's black. "Because those are the people who complain all the time, 'Oh, there's nothing to do, Cleveland's dead, there's nothing to do.' That's not the truth."
(From left: George Hahn, Nancy Reid, Bob Reid, Leesa Priah, Amy Eddings. Photo: Jeff Carlson/ideastream.)
Leesa added it appears to be true if the only entertainment guides you consulted were Scene Magazine, or the website of Destination Cleveland. One is a guide to bars, restaurants and bands, the other features big, splashy, tourist-friendly events.
"I started this [newsletter] to quiet people at work. I'm one of those, if you tell me something negative, I'm going to counteract it. It started off as a half a page and has grown to a 20-page list. And I'm finding that my co-workers are using it to plan their summers," she said.
The amenities, services and stimuli that Leesa Priah and the Reids enjoy are just a small part, the top-of-mind part, of what goes into successful aging. The experts who study this sort of thing at the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging have other criteria. Those indicators, taken together, show Cleveland has to make improvements on many fronts before it can be ranked among the nation's top cities to grow old.
Reading their 2017 report, Best Cities for Successful Aging, expanded my definition of what that means. The benchmarks I tend to think of first —transportation and convenience, general liveability (crime, unemployment, internet access, weather) and health care—are there. But Milken also considers the overall wellness of a community, employment opportunities (yes, some of us love to work and some of us, sadly, will need to work well past the average retirement age of 67), financial security, community engagement and living arrangements.
That one threw me at first. Living arrangements? But they are a big factor in successful aging, since most older adults want to "age in place" instead of decamping for the Sun Belt or moving into an assisted living facility or nursing home. For this category, Milken considers what percentage of households contain older adults and what percentage are aging in place . It examines a city's median home and rental costs and the costs of services like assisted living, a semi-private hospital room and the ratings of its nursing homes.
Cleveland ranked 17 out of 100 for living arrangements, due in part to its affordable home and rental prices, plentiful nursing beds and access to home health care service providers. It also drew a high mark of 14 for general liveability.
And there's where the high rankings ended.
Cleveland was in the middle of the pack for most of Milken's successful aging indicators. They included health care, which drew a ranking of 27, despite the presence of the Cleveland Clinic, MetroHealth and University Hospitals, educational opportunities for seniors (55), transportation and convenience (30), employment (65), and community engagement (32).
It scraped the bottom of the barrel for wellness (91) and financial security (94).
Taken together, Cleveland was ranked 36 out of 100 large metro areas in the United States. Not bad. Not best. We're worse than San Francisco (10), New York City (11), Toledo (13) and chart-topping Provo, Utah (1), and better than Akron (51), Columbus (49), Pittsburgh (45) and Miami (74).
Hey, look, we're better than Pittsburgh! For Clevelanders, that counts for something.
To answer the question posed by our podcast: Is Cleveland a good place to grow old? Sort of. We need a little polish to make those Golden Years shine.