This story was originally published in the Chicago Tribune Prime Time senior living section.
Long before it became trendy to retire to a college town for the culture, activities and intergenerational milieu, retirees have been attracted to Evanston.
For decades, the picturesque lakefront city at Chicago’s northern border has been home to marquee senior institutions such as Mather LifeWays and the Levy Senior Center. Today, there are a number of popular senior living communities in Evanston including The Merion, The Mather, Westminster Place, Three Crowns Park and more, all of which tout their proximity to Northwestern University and Chicago, and Evanston’s amenity-rich livability as prime selling points. No one can deny that this vibrant, safe, walkable town is an easy sell — the fact that it’s a short train ride to downtown Chicago and fronts Lake Michigan seals the deal.
Clote Smith, 74, chose Evanston for all of these factors and more. In 2016 she sold her Arlington Heights townhome and moved to The Merion, an independent living community in downtown Evanston.
She was familiar with the town because her daughter had attended Northwestern University. Smith, a retired paralegal manager, says she wanted to live in a place with a lot going on, and she found it.
“Evanston is a mini-Chicago in many respects,” she says, speaking of the lively nature of the community, the parks, the free concerts, and the array of restaurants.
A lover of fine music, Smith still hops on the train to attend operas in Chicago as she has done for years. But she traded her Chicago Symphony Orchestra subscription for the Evanston Symphony Orchestra, which performs nearby on the Northwestern campus and she loves it. “As a senior you can easily get isolated if you don’t get out there and go. When I retired it was my opportunity to do all of this after working nine to five all those years,” she says. “Being a college town, the students add to the mix. They are vibrant, even though they hog all the seats at the Starbucks,” she jokes.
The City of Evanston is planning for many more Clote Smiths to join the community, or age in place there, in the near future. Approximately 15 percent of its 75,000 population is 65 and older. This is in line with population statistics nationally, but all the college students in Evanston skew the population younger. Evanston’s senior population is projected to increase about 25 percent over the next 10 years.
Evanston is getting ready now.“We want to be a leader, not a follower, because we are a place where people come to retire or stay in retirement,” says Johanna Leonard, City Development director.Last year the Evanston City Council adopted an Age-Friendly Action Plan. It also became a member of the World Health Organization’s Age Friendly Cities and Communities Program, an international effort launched in 2006 to help cities prepare for rapid population aging and the parallel trend of urbanization. Evanston, Champaign, and Urbana — all college towns — are the first Illinois members.
Evanston’s Age-Friendly Action Plan addresses eight aspects of living: transportation, housing, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic participation and employment, communication and information, community support and health services, and outdoor spaces and buildings. All of these are currently being studied and improved in Evanston.
Susan Cherco, chairwoman of the Age Friendly Evanston Task Force, the group that wrote the plan, is proud to report the changes that have already taken place.
For example, “We found that Evanston has a lot of social service support and good medical support but people consistently don’t know what exists and how to find it. We wanted to make it easier for older adults to get information on social services. So we decided to offer additional training to our 311 information line operators so they can appropriately handle calls and relate better to older adults.”
The same goes for social activities and opportunities. “Cities are doing more and more communication online, and that can be a problem for some older adults,” Cherco says. “We have started a cable television channel for Evanston that provides that information.”
The physical parts of the city are being assessed as well, such as parks and business districts, with an eye toward accessibility. “We are trying to view future projects through an age-friendly lens,” she says.
“All this assessment, benchmarking, and data gathering is necessary so that we can we can point to something tangible when we need something like new bus stops,” Leonard says. “We can point to what we need, not just what we want.”
Housing for all
As in many desirable locations, the greatest challenge to Evanston seniors is not the height of a curb or the lack of a ride. It’s affordable housing. Cherco says 3,300 units of affordable housing have been lost over the past decade.
“Developers are tearing those down and building higher cost housing for professionals who want to be close to the CTA or the Metra,” she says.
“It’s true, we are a magnet for everybody,” Leonard says.
She sites good schools, culture, an easy train ride to the city, and lakefront proximity as major attractions. Not to mention the explosion of restaurants, bars and shopping, upscale grocery stores and cafes that has occurred over the past few decades.
Leonard herself grew up in Evanston and is now raising her family there. Her parents have stayed in Evanston, as well. So have many of their friends.
In July and August, the city undertook a housing survey to get a sense of where older adults are in terms of their housing needs and future plans. The hope was to gather data that will show developers that there is a market for all age and income groups, and that they have different needs and desires, Leonard says.
For example, a small apartment might be great for someone who is working and ordering takeout, but a retired couple might want a larger living space, and more room for cooking and eating in, Leonard explains.
Cherco, who is 74, says she and her husband, 83, are typical longtime Evanston residents since 1977. They intend to remain in their single-family home as long as possible. Then they envision themselves in a condo or townhome. This is exactly the information the survey is trying to glean, so it can work to keep its seniors in town.
The ultimate goal of the Age-Friendly Action Plan is building a livable community for all ages, Cherco says.
After all, who wouldn’t like more accessible bus stops, more shaded park benches, more types of housing to choose from, more ways to learn about what’s going on around town, and more Divvy bikes? (A large cohort of Evanston bike sharing users are 65 and older, Leonard says.)
“Evanston is committed to the idea that what we have to offer are amenities for everybody,” Cherco says. “We want to create a community where people can stay.”