Nov 2 2023

How to make a positive impact on the environment in retirement 

Seniors plant flowers in a flowerbed.

By residents Dale Steffens and Mary Hankins

As a younger generation earns a reputation for activism on issues like climate change, many older adults are also passionate about the environment and want to make a difference. They’ve seen wastefulness and a throw-away culture increase in their lifetimes, and are concerned about the kind of world they leave to their grandchildren and those who come after. 

The good news is even in retirement you may be able to make more of an impact than you think. 

Senior living communities are many things—places to age independently and enjoy activities and friendships—but they are also large groups of people, consumers using resources and producing waste like any small town would do. That means the voices of older adults are crucial in the movement to live better and more sustainably on our planet. 

Here are a few suggestions we have from our experience as residents of White Horse Village in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania.  

Use your voice

Ideally, management and residents alike will make environmental concerns a priority. At White Horse Village, we have more than a dozen people on our Sustainability Committee, including management, so we can share ideas and work together. 

Some of the ideas we’ve developed include replacing older work transportation with electric vehicles, building wildlife habitat on campus, adding a community composting area, switching to plant-based cleaners, and reducing the use of disposable dishware in dining.  

Education is key, so we also share our knowledge of best environmental practices with our neighbors, one-on-one and in planned forums. 

A park bench at White Horse Village made of recycled plastic, one way seniors here are helping the environment.

Find creative ways to recycle

Recycling has grown more and more common, and most retirement communities practice it at some level. But there may be ways to recycle a greater proportion of waste—and even help to prevent waste in the first place. Every community can find ways to improve. Your creativity can pinpoint those ways, and your advocacy can help make them a reality.  

For example, at White Horse Village, we’ve worked together to find creative solutions, like using plastic bag waste to create park benches on campus. We’re even planning to use recycled plastic to make durable raised beds for the community garden space, replacing the old rotting wooden beds. 

As a community, we’ve improved existing recycling and added collectors for used batteries from electronic devices and hearing aids.  

It’s not traditional recycling, but the dining team also tries to reduce waste, composting raw fruit and vegetable waste for use on campus, donating leftover food to a local soup kitchen, and also packaging leftovers for team members to use if they need it.  

It’s amazing what you can reuse—we’ve even worked with contractors on an innovative program to recycle old vinyl siding and shingles torn off in a renovation project. 

Think about architecture

With a large collection of buildings (again, similar to a town), a retirement community can make a huge impact by giving thought to best practices in design and infrastructure. That might include using environmentally friendly geothermal heating and cooling systems, installing solar panels, or paying careful attention to construction materials for energy efficiency. It’s important to consider wastewater treatment as well. On a smaller scale, energy-efficient appliances and lights help too. 

We’ve been able to implement many of these like the geothermal system at White Horse Village, and have others in the works, like putting in EV charging stations. 

White Horse Village residents in the Harvesters Garden.

Think green

If you’re lucky enough to live in a retirement community with lots of green space, that’s really the place to start with earth-friendly policies. Lawns and gardens, carelessly run, can get heavy doses of chemicals and pesticides, and damage nearby waterways with nutrient runoff from fertilizer. 

Educate your neighbors on the benefits of changing their lawn practices, and talk to community management about implementing these practices in shared space. You may be surprised how willing they are to listen! 

If you’re willing to live with a few dandelions, then cutting lawn herbicides is a great step. Also, look for ways to encourage native plants. Diverse plant life can help local animal and pollinator populations thrive

A rain garden can collect and filter stormwater to keep pollutants out of streams and help replenish groundwater supplies. 

A meadow on the White Horse Village Campus with a wooden fence in the foreground and trees in the background.

Find a good fit

When considering different retirement communities, make your concerns known by prioritizing environmental responsibility as one of the factors in your choice. 

Look at the culture, too. If the management of the community listens to residents and takes them seriously, it makes the whole process much easier and more effective. 

In your retirement years, you’ll continue to have an impact on the planet, positive or negative. Join us in working for healthy change! 

Dale Steffens and Mary Hankins are co-chairs of the White Horse Village Sustainability committee. Mary is a former biology teacher and enjoys gardening. Dale became interested in environmental matters while working for architectural firms, seeing all the ways architecture can influence sustainability.