Communities Seek to Be Age Friendly

Author: AB Staff

Communities Seek to Be Age Friendly

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Like many couples, Catherine Berger and husband raised their children in a suburban single-family house—in a subdivision an hour from downtown Atlanta. But after the kids left home and her husband died, she says, “there was nothing in the community for me.”

Fourteen years ago, Berger, 73, moved into a townhouse in Inman Park, an Atlanta neighborhood known for its historic Victorian homes. She can walk to a hub of restaurants, parks, theaters and a variety of neighborhood activities. “It’s an attractive community for people growing older who don’t want to be isolated and who want to continue a very active life,” she says.

Now Berger and a team of volunteers are working to make Inman Park an even better place for older residents to stay put. A former director of the Atlanta region’s Area Agency on Aging, Berger is heading a local initiative to turn Inman Park into a “Lifelong Community”—a place where a range of housing and transportation options and expanded access to recreation, education and social services will enable residents of all ages to lead healthy, socially active and independent lives.

To that end, Lifelong Inman Park, which is part of the neighborhood association, is working with city officials to improve sidewalks and street lighting so older people can walk safely. Berger is talking with developers about converting multi-unit houses into single-floor apartments that are easy for older adults to manage. And the local park is opening a bocce court. “We want to make sure that older people are included in anything that happens in the community,” she says.Inman Park is one of more than 15 communities that have been designated as Lifelong Communities by the Atlanta Regional Commission, the area’s planning agency. The question at the heart of the initiative: In a metropolis of sprawling suburbs, how do you plan for a massive demographic shift in which the percentage of Atlanta’s population that is age 60 and older will grow from 10% in 2000 to 20% by 2030?

The Atlanta area is among hundreds of communities nationwide that are beginning to grapple with this longevity challenge. For many, the postwar American dream meant a single-family home and a car in the driveway. But these are “deal-breakers for older people,” says Kathryn Lawler, manager of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Aging and Health Resources Division. “It means that someone needs a different way to get to the symphony because they can’t drive at night anymore,” she says. And if empty-nester baby boomers want to downsize, many prefer housing that is closer to services and to other people, Lawler says.

Nearly 90% of people age 65 and older want to remain in their homes and communities as long as possible, according to a survey by the AARP Public Policy Institute and the National Conference of State Legislatures. To make it easier for them to do so, communities—usually under the auspices of local governments—are embarking on initiatives to become “age friendly.”

These communities are reviewing needs across the aging spectrum. They’re mulling the best way to provide a growing number of frail, homebound seniors with nutritious meals, affordable home health care and even library-book delivery. For retiring baby boomers who want to remain productive, cities and towns are developing new opportunities for volunteering, lifelong learning and work. Localities also are reviewing zoning codes to encourage multi-family housing near shops, senior centers and entertainment.

Advocates say such age-friendly initiatives will benefit people of all ages. “Boomers and millennials both want walkable amenities and convenient transportation,” says Nancy LeaMond, executive vice president of AARP. More than 100 cities and towns are members of the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities, which is affiliated with the World Health Organization’s global age-friendly cities project. Both initiatives are prodding communities to become age-friendly in eight “domains,” such as providing adequate health services, convenient housing and opportunities for social participation.

To be sure, retrofitting communities can be daunting and costly. But advocates point to potentially large economic payoffs. For instance, new transit options and sidewalk improvements that make it easier for older people to get around can increase physical activity, improve health and cut medical costs in part by reducing costly falls, according to a report for Grantmakers in Aging, which provides grants to cities for age-friendly initiatives.

Plus, age-friendly services that enable older workers to stay on the job can help companies cope with workforce shortages and can “be an important economic development strategy,” says Alan DeLaTorre, co-author of the Grantmakers report and co-coordinator of the Age-Friendly Portland and Multnomah County initiatives in Oregon. He points to a program in Portland that promotes “encore careers” by helping people age 50 and older create entrepreneurial ventures. “Older workers have more spending power and give more to charity than millennials,” says DeLaTorre, research associate at Portland State University’s Institute on Aging.

Of course, age-related services have been around for years. But increasingly, communities are taking a broader approach to the longevity issue. In May, the city and county of Los Angeles announced the creation of Purposeful Aging L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti directed 14 city departments to name a Purposeful Aging point person. Among the issues departments must consider: changes in regulations to increase affordable senior housing, an expansion of wellness programs, and strategies to promote employment of older residents.

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