I am fortunate to once again be traveling, visiting continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs, also called life plan communities) across the country. In my travels, I have the opportunity to check out all sorts of cities and towns, and I enjoy getting a feel for new places — meeting the locals, seeing the sites, trying the food. I can’t help but notice, however, that some locales are more well-suited for seniors than others — what you might call “age-friendly cities.” But what actually makes a place “age-friendly”?
The first thing that might come to mind is access to good healthcare and the convenient availability of public transportation and walkable roads to reach it. You might also think that having social and volunteer organizations — both to give seniors an outlet and prevent isolation, but also to provide services to them if needed — would be a plus. Or maybe you think more tangible qualities like good restaurants, shopping, culture, and so on make a city “age-friendly.”
Well, it turns out all of this is right, and there are other attributes too, which have been determined by both global and local advocacy organizations.
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Creating change around the world
According to U.S. Census data projections, one in every five people in this country will be age 65 or older by the year 2030. Additionally, by 2035, Americans age 65 and older are expected to outnumber children under age 18. These stats are among the reasons that we as a society need to redouble our efforts to create communities that are welcoming, accessible, and able to meet the needs of older people.
It is a step in the right direction that both the World Health Organization (WHO) and AARP have created programs that aim to create more so-called “age-friendly cities” in this nation and around the world.
The World Health Organization Global Network for Age-Friendly Cities and Communities was first launched in 2006 to examine ways to help nations, cities, and communities worldwide create environments that are more suitable for their aging residents. To this end, the eight key areas of focus identified by WHO were:
- Outdoor surroundings
- Social participation
- Respect and social inclusion
- Civic participation and employment
- Communication and information
- Community support and health services
Since its inception, WHO’s initiative has grown to include 16 international network affiliate organizations. Additionally, hundreds of localities around the world have shown quantifiable achievements in these eight criteria areas and are now a part of the WHO Global Network for Age-Friendly Cities and Communities. You can search WHO’s list of localities here.
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More age-friendly cities across this country
Here in the United States, the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities was established in April 2012 as an independent affiliate of WHO’s Global Network for Age-Friendly Cities and Communities. This AARP initiative strives to promote policies and programs that help older Americans live more easily and comfortably in their homes and larger communities.
The AARP program looks at both the built and the social environment when determining eligibility for network membership. The primary program initiatives and community assessments are focused on:
- Community engagement
- Social inclusion
- Combating isolation among older citizens
AARP collaborates with officials and partner organizations at the local level to identify communities that may meet the network membership criteria to be designated as an “age-friendly city.” AARP then guides community representatives through the network’s assessment and implementation processes, including the development of an action plan to further promote age-friendly policies and practices.
The program is intended to be a tool that can help leaders at the local level as they work to help their communities evolve to be “friendly” places for everyone to live. View the list of over 570 counties and communities across the country that have met the criteria to be included in the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities.
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Listening to seniors’ voices
Oftentimes, well-meaning citizens and leaders create programs for seniors without actually including seniors in the planning and decision processes. The WHO and AARP programs encourage seniors to take a more proactive role in their communities and have their voices heard as strategies and policies are formulated.
This might look different in each community depending on their existing strengths and their opportunities for improvement.
For instance, a town may have an array of lifelong learning opportunities, a great public library, and numerous social and recreation programs for seniors. But perhaps they lack a convenient public transportation system to help seniors access these programs. With this in mind, the city could create a public transportation committee, which includes seniors within the community, to formulate solutions.
Maybe another city has wonderful community support programs and health services to address the needs of seniors, but they have a shortage of safe, affordable housing that is accessible to seniors. This would be another opportunity to form a taskforce that includes the voices of older members of the community.
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As a society, it is our responsibility to think of innovative new ways to address the health, social, and emotional needs of our older neighbors. Programs like WHO’s Global Network for Age-Friendly Cities (and here in the U.S., AARP’s Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities) are finding outside-the-box ways to support seniors, working with leadership at the local level.
These initiates acknowledge that positive change takes time, and we are all works in progress. But the fact that more than 570 counties and communities across the U.S. (and growing!) have qualified as “age-friendly cities”— and taken proactive steps toward becoming even more so — tells me that we are moving in the right direction.
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