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—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
- communication and information, and
- community support and health services.
The topics that were teased out 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.
More Than a Roof Overhead
Given the current emphasis on the desirability of “aging in place” — staying at home as long as possible rather than moving to a care facility — it’s no wonder housing was high on the list of concerns for age-friendly communities. But the breadth of that discussion, from affordability to design to modifying current structures, made clear that the issue is not only close to many hearts, but also seen as an essential link to aging safely and comfortably as well as staying engaged in community life.
What Makes Housing ‘Age-Friendly’?
While needs and urgencies differed around the world, participants were early able to focus in a few components deemed essential.
- Affordability. Most agreed that the cost of buying or renting was the biggest roadblock to age-friendly housing. But the high cost of moving can also play a role. In Geneva, for example, many older people said they currently living in houses with wasted space and too much room, but they cannot afford to move because they’re pensioners. Many also cited the attendant high costs of essential services connected to housing, such as electricity, water, and gas. Suggestions for more affordable senior housing included lower tax levels for older people and more subsidies for public and private housing.
- Design. Age-friendly design elements targeted included: solid structures made of appropriate materials with sufficient space, even floor surfaces, and hallways wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs as well as usable and accessible kitchens and bathrooms. Some suggested sweetening the pot to make sure that age-friendly designs are given priority in new construction by offering incentives to encourage architects and property developers to build them.
- Modifications. Affordable modifications, such as chairlifts, ramps, and handrails, or financial assistance with obtaining them, were flagged as an essential and often overlooked component of age-friendly housing, as was the need to inform older people about what home modifications might be possible.
- Maintenance. Keeping up with home maintenance was identified as another challenge for many older people — with high costs heading the concern. In some locales, low-cost repair services are provided to older residents through subsidies or grants. A related concern among elders is the potential risk in having strangers come into their homes. Some cities, including Portland, offer a system for screening contractors and others providing repair and maintenance services to older homeowners.
- Access to services. A related issue, having access to services such as gardening and housecleaning, was also deemed essential to aging in place. However, there was also concern about the need to educate older people about the potential risks of remaining at home, especially if geographically removed from needed services and facilities. Another suggestion: better information and directories about locally available home support services for seniors.
- Community connections. Maintaining connections with other residents is at the heart of age-friendliness, yet the ability to do so is often curbed in structures such as high-rise buildings in which residents typically have little opportunity to interact with neighbors. One suggestion was to build more senior housing overlooking communal facilities, helping to reduce isolation.
- Housing options. There was widespread hand-wringing over the need for more housing options for older people, especially affordable options, which often have punishingly-long waiting lists in many locales. The flipside of this concern, however, is the fear of creating “senior ghettos” in which older residents are isolated from the community, particularly from younger people.
- Living environment. Finally, a home environment with sufficient space and privacy was highlighted as an important age-friendly element — in shorter supply as many cities become increasingly overcrowded. Safety was another concern, with some locales touting free home security checks, security patrols, and emergency alarm systems.
A Closer Look at Some Age-Friendly Housing Projects
Taking these concerns to heart, a couple of American locales were quick to tailor specific projects, taking tangible steps to make and keep housing age-friendly.
- The Tool Table. The Advisory Committee on Aging in the town of Bowdoinham, Maine (population: approximately 3,000) has ferreted out a collection of devices designed to make everyday life at home and in the car easier. The products are arranged on a “tool table” in the town office and available to residents to try out to see what best meets their needs.
The tool table includes more than 30 items including pill boxes, various styles of jar and can openers, stretchable shoe laces, shoe horns, a strobe door bell and smoke detector, a variety of devices to help people get in and out of the car or use a seat belt safely, and several types of grabbers for retrieving objects off shelves.
- Universal Designs. Florida’s Age-Friendly Sarasota lobbied for its Board of County Commissioners to adopt a resolution on Universal Design and Visitability program for residential housing units. The resolution encourages providers and builders of housing in the County to construct housing and communities that are safe and enable residents to move around easily in their communities and to age in place. While compliance is voluntary, the county provides an incentive by certifying local housing projects that meet the criteria for universal design: a concept that promotes places and spaces designed to be easily accessible and functional.