Beginning at a tender age, one of the most difficult feelings to contend with is the nebulous one of being left out of the mainstream. And the cut seems unkindest of all when it happens to older people who by dint of design or sometimes their own mounting challenges in seeing, hearing, and getting around are made to feel like strangers in their own front yards. And yet that is exactly what is happening to many seniors in the U.S. and around the world.
One of the first and largest studies to address the growing challenge of making communities compatible for seniors was launched more than a decade ago, in 2005 — an ambitious worldwide effort spurred by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The initiative helped identify eight key areas that communities must address to become more age-friendly:
- outdoor spaces and buildings
- social participation
- respect and social inclusion
- civic participation and employment
- communication and information, and
- community support and health services.
Teasing out these topics served as a starting point for many local efforts worldwide, with ongoing programs and activities recorded at a dedicated website, Age Friendly World.
The Primal Craving for Communication
Of all the eight areas highlighted, the most primal and basic factor was the need to have information that is readily accessible to older people who have varying capacities and resources. People polled around the globe cited a range of sources for information they hold dear — including local community-wide media, radio, television, newspapers, and the Internet. Specially valued, however, was information delivered personally, by telephone, or in accessible key locations such as libraries, stores, health clinics, and doctors’ offices.
Many lamented the high cost of keeping informed. On this score, American cities could take a few lessons from spots in other countries that seem better sensitized to making information sources affordable to older residents. In Tuymazy, a town in Russia with a population of about 67,000, for example, employers routinely provide free newspaper subscriptions to former employees after they retire. And the town of Dundalk, Ireland, provides public subsidies for home telephone lines for residents over the age of 70.
Learning From the Weak Spots
But in addition to barriers with cost and delivery, seniors targeted other common problems with the local information and communications available to them.
Coordinating is key. It’s easy for anyone to become overwhelmed by the barrage of information now available — a bombardment that can be particularly challenging for older people. Too many sources offering too much information simply adds to the confusion. Many people championed the idea of consolidating senior-specific information in one central place that is widely known throughout the community. As one example, Portland, Oregon, has taken a giant step in this direction by providing a live, 24-hour telephone information service dedicated to seniors.
Clamping down on scammers. The downside to improving access to information may be that it opens the door to shady characters who use it unscrupulously. Seniors, especially those who are isolated or lonely, are particularly vulnerable to intrusive telemarketing pitches, identity frauds, and scams targeting them.
While the Federal Bureau of Investigation provides a comprehensive tipsheet in spotting telemarketing frauds, experts caution it’s also essential to get local authorities aware of senior scamming schemes and get them active in cracking down on wrongdoers.
Keeping it personal. While streamlining information sources and keeping them safe for seniors is crucial, older people worldwide overwhelmingly said that word of mouth is their preferred way to receive communications — through informal contacts with family and friends, through club memberships and meetings, at community and senior centers, or at places of worship. Radio talk shows, especially those with call-in features, are considered by many to be the next best thing to being there. They remain particularly popular with older listeners, many of whom said they felt excluded from the information mainstream because they do not use computers or access the Internet.
The interpersonal aspect of communication may be especially important to those who are illiterate or visually impaired, but it also provides the opportunity for human interaction too often missing from many older lives. While quizzing seniors about their hopes and needs for age-friendly communication, WHO surveyors noted that many expressed regret about “losing opportunities to interact with others as a result of changes, such as new high-rise buildings in the neighborhood, the closing of community post offices, and other services.” What is most highly valued, they noted, is “receiving the attention of a real person who is helpful, clear, and unhurried.”
The medium is the message. Finally, seniors lamented the obvious in describing the patent age-unfriendliness of much of the information presented to them. Written materials are printed in tiny fonts, with too much information crammed into small spaces. Auditory information is spoken too quickly, and the rapid-fire speech is too often complicated or laced with unfamiliar terms and acronyms. Displays on mobile phones and other equipment are too small, and automated machines for parking, posting, and other types of automated “help” are confusingly different and often inaccessible to those in wheelchairs, or clumsily impossible to use for those on canes or walkers.
New York’s Age Friendly Answer
Responding to the complaints about barriers to clear information for seniors raised in the WHO initiative, New York City instituted the Age Friendly College.
The project was initially spurred by letters from then-mayor Michael Bloomberg and Christine Quinn, former speaker of the New York City Council. They asked area colleges, schools, and universities to participate by providing information about free and low-cost educational opportunities likely to be of interest to older adults — including degree programs, continuing education, campus events and resources, and distance learning.
Information from the 40 schools that responded was then amalgamated and distilled on the nation’s first searchable online database aimed at empowering older adults to take advantage of local educational opportunities. The database includes information on senior discounts for continuing education courses; free auditing privileges; job training and certificate programs; GED and English as a Second Language courses; programs for older adults only as well as public events, performances and lecture series and access to campus resources including art galleries, museums, and gyms.
The database’s design is simple, direct, and uncluttered — in short, age friendly.