Towns Provide True Sense of Belonging
Harrisburg Sunday Patriot News
Sunday, May 11, 2003
By Thomas Hylton
For 30 years, I've enjoyed life in Pottstown, a traditional town similar to Harrisburg, where I can walk to work, to stores, and everywhere else I need to go. Now I've discovered another benefit: A town is a great place for dear old mom.
It's been a long time since America built any towns. Starting after World War II, Americans began scattering new housing, shopping malls and office parks randomly across the landscape. This sprawling development offered people bigger housing tracts, but required a car for every trip.
With increasing traffic congestion, declining urban areas and vanishing open space, a growing number of policy makers are questioning whether suburban sprawl is sustainable. Traditional towns are starting to look a lot more appealing, and people like my widowed mother are one of the reasons.
For three decades, Mom lived in serene self-sufficiency, about an hour's drive away from her children. As she reached her 80s, however, we became increasingly concerned about her ability to live alone. Mom grudgingly recognized she wasn't going to be driving forever, and in our car-oriented society, she faced imprisonment in her own apartment. Retirement homes can be prohibitively expensive, and besides, they always seem to remove the elderly from the mainstream of life. Another possible alternative, asking Mom to move into our house, would have meant a lot more togetherness than any of us desired.
Thankfully, traditional towns have many housing options, and one presented itself just ten feet from our door. The three-unit apartment building next to our house was put up for sale. Using the money we saved over three decades by not having to own and maintain a second car, my wife and I bought it. We promised Mom we would fix up the first floor apartment to suit her tastes, and we promised her a cat.
The cat, which Mom didn't feel she could keep by herself, was a major inducement for moving. But we've had plenty of other reasons to be happy she's close by. Twice, she's fallen and had to crawl to the phone to call me to come help her up.
On Christmas Eve, she had an attack of flu that had us running frequently between her place and ours. Even if things get serious, we know that professional assistance is literally minutes away, because like most towns, Pottstown has its own hospital and ambulance service.
There are five churches within a three minute walk of our house, but Mom - being a true American - prefers one that's a mile away. Fortunately, she has fellow parishioners on our block, and they take turns driving. Mom's car trips are down to two or three a week, and they're quite short. She's made a number of friends within walking distance, and there are plenty of other places she can walk, including the hairdresser, the dentist - even the foot doctor.
I enjoy my morning visits to bring Mom the papers and give her a hug. My wife shares coffee with Mom every evening after dinner. There's nothing like physical proximity to provide warmth and security.
Our situation is not uncommon. Just down our street is a young couple whose parents and grandmother live in the house next door. Many other Pottstonians have parents living within a few blocks of their houses.
Pennsylvania has the third highest percentage of elderly in the nation, and their numbers will swell with aging baby boomers and longer life spans. Suburban living doesn't have much to offer aging adults, but towns do. Even if there are no loved ones nearby, towns provide lots of people, services, and activities - and a sense of belonging.
Surveys by the American Association of Retired Persons show that elderly people overwhelmingly favor independent living, and few think they need their children's help. At 89, my mother is still free to control her checkbook, make her own decisions, and live her own life. It's just comforting - both to her and to us - to know her family is nearby. In a town, you can be close, but not too close.