How Age Friendly is Your Community?

As society ages, service providers and retailers can make a big impact without a big price tag.


If you haven't seen much yet about "age friendly" communities, you will. Starting next year, 10,000 Baby Boomers a day will turn 65. The cumulative impact of an aging society has moved -- slowly, to be sure -- into the mainstream. What's clear at this point is that there is no single model for making a city, suburb, or even neighborhood age friendly. Even the priorities in pursuing such an objective differ greatly.

What doesn't differ so much are the things older residents say would make their community more age friendly: housing that better accommodates older occupants and visitors; public and volunteered transportation that provides affordable, physically accessible, safe. and flexible service; downtown areas and, especially in the suburbs, gathering places that are pedestrian friendly and don't require a car to reach; retailers who "get it" about legible store signage, senior sensitivity in product selections, and accessible store layouts, and, a range of "aging in place" healthcare and social-service supports that help older people lead independent lives and remain in their homes as long as possible.

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Earlier this year, New York City's efforts to become more friendly to older residents and visitors received media attention. Among its newsworthy accomplishments: longer "walk" signs at traffic signals to give older pedestrians more time to cross the street. There were other items as well and a common element is that they were practical, not so hard to implement, and not requiring seals of Presidential Commissions and blue-ribbon panels.

The fact that it's newsworthy to lengthen traffic signals, however, also shows how much work remains. Most experts agree that little is being done to get ready for the surge in older populations. It begins with where we live. America's suburbs were largely built for families, not older people living alone (roughly half of the nation's 22 million homes that include someone older than 65 have only one occupant). Being able to walk to nearby stores, libraries, medical offices, and other locations is not only hard but impossible in many suburbs.

"One of our number one priorities is looking at the way we build our houses," says Sharon Bulova, chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in northern Virginia. This includes government support for zoning and design changes plus awareness programs that can reach planners and builders as well as the general public. The county issued a "Fairfax 50+ Action Plan" in 2007 arranged around broad goals and rallying slogans: Plan now for a more aging friendly community tomorrow; provide housing options for every age; affordability; transportation options will ensure independence; engaged older adults benefit us all; diversity; caregivers; technology; health/mental health, and, service capacity.

[See A Dozen Big Questions About Aging in America.]

Two major gathering spots in the county -- Tysons Corner and the Springfield Mall -- are seeing age friendly planning and zoning changes. "Both of these plan changes," Bulova says, "are based on a different growth pattern, a smart growth pattern" that includes providing "a place where people can live independently without needing to have a car." The county also has an ombudsman to help promote age-friendly home design and renovations.

Nearby Arlington County adopted an Elderly Readiness Implementation Plan in late 2007, with a similar list of goals and strategies. Whereas Fairfax County has more than a million residents spread across nearly 400 square miles, Arlington County has more than 200,000 people living in only 25 square miles.

"We're lucky because we are, geographically, the smallest county in the nation," says Terri Lynch, director of the Arlington Agency on Aging, which is part of county government. Further, all aging services are housed in one place, she says, which aids coordination, planning, and service delivery efforts. The area also enjoys strong volunteer support, Lynch says. It's Meals on Wheels program, for example is totally provided by volunteers who deliver up to 1,600 meals a week.

Still, even in a place where government is structured to support age friendly services and has even developed a plan to improve them, Lynch says the sense of progress can often be overwhelmed by current work loads. For example, it's widely agreed that age friendly homes should have flat, wheelchair accessible entrances. "It's just really hard to get people to make that change," she says. "That is such a struggle." Other practical changes also can take a long time. Longer street signals are one example, as are putting pedestrian "refuges" midway across very broad streets.

In New York City, the age friendly movement is playing out on a big stage. The city is one of 35 places in the World Health Organization's (WHO) efforts to develop and implement age friendliness on a global basis. In New York, the private New York Academy for Medicine is providing staff support to help implement city government age friendly initiatives.

[See Attractive and Functional Design Solutions for Aging Homeowners.]

Jo Ivey Boufford, Academy president, says Mayor Michael Bloomberg's sustained emphasis on strategic planning was not initially focused on age friendly efforts. But she notes that it helped create a responsive environment for the extensive planning and collaborative work that led to the city's Age Friendly New York City program, which is staffed out of the Academy.

The city brought together nearly two dozen agencies, she recalls. "One of the first reactions we got from many agencies was that 'we don't do aging,'" Boufford says, but "they got it pretty fast." In addition to involving city agencies and political leaders, extensive interviews with seniors were conducted to better understand what they wanted and would consider to be age friendly. Boufford says public engagement is a key requirement of the WHO program. Right now, that's being seen in two specific New York neighborhoods that have been selected as aging improvement districts.

Academy staffer Dorian Block works closely with East Harlem, the district that has to date progressed the furthest. Key neighborhood institutions and businesses were contacted for their ideas on making the area more age friendly, and residents were surveyed as well. Block says questions included identifying places that older residents visited, and things they perceived to be age-related barriers to access or affordability. "A lot of these businesses are already doing" age friendly things, she says, such as providing large-font signs on product displays or providing patrons with places to sit and rest. The initiative showcases these best practices and tries to expand their use.

In New York and other areas, people involved in age friendly programs emphasize that many of the changes benefit all residents, and should not be viewed as being helpful only to older persons. It's the city for all ages, not just older residents, Block says, attributing the phrase to Mayor Bloomberg. Pedestrian friendly downtowns, for example, are helpful not only to seniors but also to parents with children and strollers. Younger people like the "all in one place" features of Tysons Corner as much as the elderly, Fairfax's Bulova says.

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