For many people, retirement marks one of the most profound changes in their lives and lifestyles. Those who have defined themselves by and through their work suddenly feel unmoored or adrift, with no easy way to answer the common question: “So what do you do?”
To further complicate the picture, the persistent tough economic times and the increased cost of living and medical care simply make it impossible for many people to take retirement at the traditional age of 65.
But even seniors who are lucky enough to live without the necessity of having paid work say they crave ways to stay involved in local civic activities as they age.
Those participating in a worldwide project focused on making communities more age-friendly expressed this need loudly and clearly, and most lobbied for more local employment and volunteer opportunities tailored to older people. They also described current barriers to inclusion that they’ve faced, both physical and cultural.
The Age Friendly WHO Initiative
One of the first and largest studies to address the growing challenge of making and keeping communities age-friendly was launched just over a decade ago in an ambitious worldwide effort spurred by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The initiative helped identify eight key areas communities must address:
- outdoor spaces and buildings
- social participation
- respect and social inclusion
- civic participation and employment—discussed here
- communication and information, and
- community support and health services.
These topics served as a starting point for many local efforts worldwide, with ongoing programs and activities recorded at Age Friendly World. The Age-Friendly Global Network currently includes 500 cities and communities, 12 affiliated programs, and 37 countries — covering 155 million people. And it’s growing rapidly, as communities and countries learn from one another’s successes and failures.
Better Employment Options and Opportunities
Unlike many other countries, the U.S. has a low tolerance for employment policies limiting workers based on age alone. While exceptions exist for some types of employers and some types of workers — such as the active military personnel, pilots, and air traffic controllers — mandatory retirement policies are generally illegal.
But other impediments exist for older people attempting to get or keep paid employment. In some cases, Social Security and other benefit payments may be reduced for those who continue working. And many older people seeking employment say they come up against the mostly unspoken but very real prejudices that cast them as less competent and able than younger hires.
Participants in the WHO project think tank offered a number of suggestions for improving and creating employment opportunities for older people in their communities, including:
- Offering incentives to employers who hire older workers
- Providing training or retraining in specific job skills
- Encouraging more government-sponsored employment programs, and
- Creating more public/private partnerships.
Flexibility is also considered key. Many seniors are at the age and stage in which they may define work differently, and many have come to shun rigid schedules and inflexible job descriptions. “I don’t want to have to be there every day of the week at 9:00,” said one recent retiree from Portland, Oregon who participated in the WHO initiative. “I got enough of that working.”
Suggestions for added flexibility included lighter workloads, more flexible sick leave, and work projects targeted to tap the experience and expertise of older workers, such as giving advice to new entrepreneurs.
Community involvement doesn’t necessarily involve money changing hands, however. In locales in which seniors were encouraged to be actively involved in volunteering, many participants were quick to herald the benefits: a renewed sense of self-worth, an increase in energy stirred by the activity, a way to feel useful and maintain their health and social connections.
Despite the recognized value of volunteering and the clamoring for more such opportunities, however, older people said they commonly run into a number of roadblocks, including:
- Lack of access to information about suitable local opportunities
- Lack of transportation to and from volunteer sites
- Unreimbursed expenses, such as transportation, gas, and parking, and
- Liability issues surrounding older participants cited by some volunteer organizations.
In addition, several participants mentioned a less tangible impediment to volunteering: a feeling that the “ethic of volunteering” is no longer valued. They point to the decreasing rosters of younger volunteers replacing the older ones as proof.
Portland Pushes an Age-Friendly Agenda
No U.S. participant in the Age Friendly Global Network has yet taken on the specific focus of promoting employment opportunities and reengineering workplace policies for seniors.
However, the active group in Portland, Oregon, did find a way to engage older adults in civic participation while setting the stage to get future political support for its concerns about making the city more age-friendly. The group was spurred by the experience of an elected mayor who broke prior promises about providing senior services.
To begin, Portland State University’s Institute on Aging collaborated with AARP Oregon and Elders in Action to solicit from residents the age-friendly issues they felt are most important. The responses from 185 locals, 75% of whom were 55 or older, included:
- housing — 41%
- community support and health services — 21%, and
- transportation — 14%.
They then hosted a forum for the top three mayoral candidates, pressing them about their perspectives and potential approaches to deal with the matters. Participants later said the forum event was critical in finding a political champion and getting “buy-in” from a future elected leader and accomplished the essential step of getting the candidates’ promises on the public record should future reminders be required.