As the world’s population of older residents is growing, so is the recognition of the need to make changes to make it a more age-friendly place to live. One of the first and largest studies to address the growing challenge was launched in 2005—an ambitious worldwide effort spurred by the World Health Organization (WHO).
From the outset, 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.
This served as a starting point for many local efforts worldwide, with ongoing programs and activities recorded at a dedicated website, Age Friendly World.
The Meaning of Respect
Many of the impediments to age-friendliness that were unearthed were practical concerns, such as accessible transportation and affordable housing. But a few targeted less tangible and potentially knottier problems — among them: the need to make seniors feel respected and socially included. This is slightly different from the related topic of “social participation,” which turns mostly on a community offering events and activities geared to senior residents.
The need for respect, while hard to garner, is easier to define: Older residents said they often experienced a lack of consideration from both members of the community and from their own families. They craved simple civility and kindness — the offer of a seat on the bus, a smile of acknowledgment from a store clerk, a recognition of the wisdom that only experience can bring.
Most felt one of the biggest impediments were negative preconceptions and stereotypes about both younger and older people, and the best cure was to encourage activities that brought together diverse age groups. Others suggested ways to make existing events and resources more accessible. There are already several such projects in place in the U.S. under the aegis of the WHO group, with the hope they can be replicated in other locales.
Projects in the U.S.A.
Corte Madera, California — Honoring Nonagenarians and Centenarians: For the second year in a row, Age-Friendly Corte Madera has partnered with several local groups to organize a celebration for residents who are 90 years old and older. Family, friends, and community members are invited to the program in the town’s community center, which was built in 1952 by several of the honorees. The most recent celebration, held in the 100th year of the town’s founding, acknowledged 23 honorees — more than twice as many as the year before — as “living links to history.” That event included live music, along with trivia questions to stimulate reminiscing and conversation among those attending. Organizers are now left with the happy challenge of “maintaining the warmth and intimacy of the event” in future years as the town’s pool of nonagenarians and centenarians continues to increase.
Montgomery County, Maryland — InterAges: Maryland’s Montgomery County, which boasts a population of more than 1 million people, also has dibs on being one of the most diverse communities in the U.S., with residents hailing from more than 150 countries. Seniors account for a growing proportion of the county’s population: the number of those 65 and older increased by 86% from the year 1980 to 2000, and is projected to grow an additional 65% from 2000 to 2020. And the county has been somewhat of a trendsetter in ensuring age-friendly environs. More than 30 years ago, the Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington (JCA) established the InterAges program, bringing senior volunteers into the public schools as tutors and mentors and young volunteers into senior facilities to help with energizing activities and discussions. InterAges recently expanded its initiative to include three programs educating older residents about local employment opportunities while also educating area employers about the benefits of hiring older workers.
New York, New York — Age Friendly Neighborhoods Initiative: Older adults who live in New York often affectionately laud the place as a “city of neighborhoods” — and that description seems to become even more dear to their hearts as they continue to age. But the uniqueness of the neighborhoods is also why one uniform citywide policy simply won’t work to tap into the strengths and hone up the shortcomings to make New York City more age-friendly. To address hyperlocal concerns, this initiative brought together city officials and leaders and resources from local businesses and nonprofits, as well as cultural, educational, and religious institutions to brainstorm free and low-cost improvements for seniors living there. A few specifics already in place:
- In Brooklyn, a neighborhood resource guide focused on older adults, available to community members in print through local senior centers, public libraries, businesses, and community-based organizations.
- In Manhattan, increased advocacy for services and programming at the New York Public Library, a resource for older adults that can be further leveraged and promoted.
- In Queens, an evaluation of mental health resources and patient-centered care to improve the quality of life for older adults.
Sarasota, Florida — Theater Arts Docudrama: After interviewing nearly 100 residents ages 50 and older about their experiences with aging, theater staff worked to write and produce a play reenacting them, “Old Enough to Know Better: Aging Well in Saratoga.” Much was learned during the drafting and revising process, which included a number of talking sessions in which a diverse array of audience members from the community were asked questions such as: “What was the play about?” and “Did anything about the play surprise you?” The final 45-minute production was performed in the community theater as well as in various senior care facilities.
West Chester, Pennsylvania — West Chester Universities Intergenerational Mentoring: This project pairs university students and older community residents from diverse backgrounds who meet twice weekly to learn from and mentor one another. Topics discussed range from coping with stressful events in life, to cultivating hobbies, to managing technology. While sharing knowledge and information about differing backgrounds and cultures, an added boon is that both generations also learn to recognize age-based myths and stereotypes.