Aging in the Next Pittsburgh: Get on the Bus (2014)

originally published as a guest post on ChangingAging.org

Dr. Bill Thomas’ 25-city Second Wind Tour rolls into town to perform before a capacity crowd at the New Hazlett Theater on April 1, 2014. Each city has a local speaker on the bill, and I’m honored to have been invited to step into that role when the bus arrives in Pittsburgh.

Like the book on which it’s based, the Second Wind Tour is an inspired creative undertaking, a non-fiction theater experience designed to bring communities together to reimagine aging and its possibilities.

So now seems a good time to ask, “What can aging look like in the Next Pittsburgh?”

In case you’re not from around here, “the Next Pittsburgh” is how the city’s new Mayor Bill Peduto and his team have set about reimagining how things work when it comes to just about everything in town, even down to the city’s Twitter account @TheNextPGH.

Why not aging?

“Congregation” 2014 — by British artists Kit Monkman and Tom Wexler, who produce as KMA http://www.marketsquarepublicart.com/

Pittsburgh has had a reputation for being old for as long as I can remember. When I began studying gerontology in the early ’90s, we had just finished a decade of getting really old, really quickly (comparatively speaking). Allegheny County was known to just about everyone as the 2nd oldest county in the nation, behind only Dade in Florida.

We got older mostly by subtraction, as in the many thousands of 18 to 35 yr olds moving away between 1977 and 1987 as the steel mills and associated industries contracted. At the peak of out-migration in 1982 (when I was in middle school), an estimated 50,000 people a year moved away from the region.

Southwestern Pennsylvania’s remaining population skewed older, and as time progressed, our demographic profile remained older as the kids of those 18 to 35 yr olds in the Pittsburgh Diaspora were born elsewhere.

Fast-forward 25 years and something has changed here.

Pittsburgh from the North Boros

As the Greatest Generation continues its long goodbye and we still feel the absence of the Baby Boomers who moved away in 1980 at age 31 (who are now going on Medicare), the proportion 65+ in the city and county has been declining, whereas elsewhere around the country it has only grown. The City of Pittsburgh actually has a lower % 65+ than the rest of the country!

True, there has been some modest migration into the region in the last six or seven years from returning Gen-Xers like myself and more Millenials who have discovered its charms — even some international immigrants! But mostly it’s our elders dying off and the artifact of our Pittsburgh Diaspora that has contributed to our becoming “less old.”

Central Lawrenceville had 43.6% fewer 65+ yr olds in 2010 compared to 2000. There’s no shortage of stories of Pittsburgh’s emergence as a desirable place to live and work in the last few years, and Lawrenceville has garnered its fair share of attention as a place for artists and others in the creative class to find a home in Pittsburgh. The conventional wisdom is that as older people have passed away they have made way for younger people to move in and transform neighborhoods.

That’s true as far as it goes, but it glosses over something profound. The 670 fewer elders in Central Lawrenceville? It’s an underestimate of the demographic change-over, as of course, the total in 2010 included those who aged into the 65+ category. But for that X number of long-time residents no longer there, their passing meant something to the community, to their neighbors and relatives in relationships with them, even more so near the end of their lives.

It’s a process that’s rich and by its very nature hard to quantify, but for every tragic story of a lonely elder dying in isolation — and there are far too many of those — there are numerous examples of relationships deepened near the end of life, lasting legacies formed, neighbors who will not be forgotten and who will live on in the fabric of the Next Pittsburgh.

Make no mistake, there’s often conflict between young and old as neighborhoods change, but I argue the X-factor in Pittsburgh’s ongoing transformation has been the passing of our elders. Not their absence, but their presence in their final years.

I’m only prepared to share an N of 1 story here, but my relationship with my late friend Bob while living in Friendship — documented on our GeriatricFellow Youtube channel and on the 200+ posts of my now dormant Gerontologo Americano blog — changed me and led me to rethink a lot of what I know about aging.

I know every Greatest Generation elder who passed away in our neighborhoods did not connect with a younger person in their final years, and very few told their stories as Bob did with me. But just because the stories were not told (yet) does not mean they haven’t been lived, in large and small ways.

Pittsburghers young and old have been enriched through relationships formed at bus stops, over coffee at Giant Eagle, playing banjos together at the Elks Club on Wednesday nights on the North Side, or shoveling a neighbor’s front steps after a snowstorm.

We are an old city and region, with no shortage of steps to be shoveled. There’s no getting around it, no putting on airs about being hip, especially with our elders.

So, here’s a challenge for the Next Pittsburgh and our region: Our deep reservoir of oldest-old is leveling off, even declining over the next few years.

I’m a Gen-X gerontologist and will be an aging enthusiast to the end, so I say…fear not Next Pittsburgh, we will find our Second Wind as a community by slowing down, going deeper and getting connected, and we’ll make it through this period of fewer oldest-old elders in our midst!

Provided of course we tell our stories together and continue celebrating elderhood after the bus leaves town.

Follow me on Twitter @GeroAmericano