LeadingAge Magazine · May/June 2015 • Volume 05 • Number 03

Creating Age-Friendly Cities

May 10, 2015 | by Dianne Molvig

A global movement to make cities more age-friendly has benefits for people of every generation. Here is how some aging-services providers are participating.

Imagine being an older adult living in a community where you can walk safely to an inviting neighborhood park. You live in housing that’s comfortable, affordable and suited to your mobility limitations. Excellent public transportation is available so that you can go to your doctor, visit a friend across town or take in a play at a downtown theater. The teachers at a nearby school value your help as a tutor for a child learning to read.

For most of us, this scenario for our old age would seem ideal. Now many communities are trying to make that vision come to life.

Nearly 300 municipalities around the world are participating in the Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities of the World Health Organization (WHO). The partner for this effort in the United States is the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Cities, which now has more than three dozen members.

The time is right for such a movement. Consider that by 2017, for the first time in history, the number of adults age 65 and older will exceed the number of children under age five, according to WHO data.

The age-friendly concept is not only about physical accessibility for people with diminishing functional capacity, says Alexandre Kalache, M.D., in an online interview at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. Kalache spearheaded the WHO age-friendly initiative, launched in 2007, and is now president of the International Longevity Centre-Brazil in Rio de Janeiro.

While accessibility is a key component, an age-friendly community goes beyond that, Kalache explains. “We’re talking about good policies” in transportation, housing, health services and more.

An age-friendly community is also one in which older adults encounter a welcoming attitude from policy makers, service providers and the general population, Kalache says, so that elders truly feel accepted and valued in the community.

In the age-friendly movement, “the emphasis is on ‘age,’” Kalache points out. “We are not saying ‘senior-friendly.’ We are looking at the city through the lens of an older person. If it’s friendly to an older person, it’s going to be friendly to everybody.”

Indeed, people of all ages enjoy being able to walk to safe neighborhood parks. Quality public transportation allows all city residents to be less reliant on cars, relieving clogged city streets and air pollution. And a bus that an older person finds easy to board also will be more convenient for a parent with a toddler in a stroller or someone toting grocery bags or luggage.

Thus, age-friendly refers to “an inclusive design and inclusive policies,” Kalache says, “that will make the life of every single citizen easier.”

The age-friendly community movement aligns with other trends playing out in this country and around the world, says Robert Lagoyda, education manager at LeadingAge. He cites the efforts in many larger U.S. cities to create mixed-use urban centers that have both housing and retail stores located along mass-transit lines.

People’s preferences in how and where to live also are shifting, Lagoyda points out. Some, for instance, are shunning the isolation of suburbia. The millennial generation is opting not to buy cars and instead they’re walking, biking, and using public transportation to get where they want to go.

“These various trends are happening on parallel tracks,” Lagoyda says. “Other movements are happening in consort with the age-friendly initiative.”

To assess their level of age-friendliness, cities can use the Checklist of Essential Features of Age-Friendly Cities created by the WHO project. This tool covers eight areas:

  • Outdoor spaces and buildings
  • Transportation
  • Housing
  • Social participation
  • Respect and social inclusion
  • Civic participation and employment
  • Communication and information
  • Community and health services

Lagoyda says communities have strong motivations to enhance what they’re doing in the above eight areas to become more age-friendly.

“We’ll have healthier, more vibrant communities,” he says. “When people are isolated and unable to get out, you see worsening health conditions. You end up having heavier financial costs down the road.”

LeadingAge members, too, should consider getting involved in this movement, according to Lagoyda. “Our members have a commitment to older folks in general,” he says. “Having our cities make more sense also serves the greater population. I think there’s a social accountability role in this for our members.”

As someone who has been a gerontologist “for lots of years,” Marvin Kaiser, CEO of Mary's Woods at Marylhurst in Lake Oswego, OR, views the age-friendly community movement as a welcome sign of changing views on aging.

The focus on age-friendliness “moves the conversation from a deficit way of thinking about aging,” he says, “to a much more balanced view. How can communities work more effectively and intergenerationally so that we value and support each other? That kind of thinking makes this a much more joyful conversation. It puts something positive in front of folks.”

This line of thought also marks a culture shift, Kaiser says. “If you recognize that it’s the human resource that makes communities hum and work, you must create a way to convey that everyone in the community is valuable and has something to offer.”

Lake Oswego is just outside of Portland, OR, which was one of nine cities worldwide selected in 2010 to be a pioneer member of the WHO Network of Age-Friendly Cities. The city adopted its Action Plan for an Age-Friendly Portland in 2013.

It’s now in the midst of a yearlong community engagement project that builds on the Action Plan’s recommendations. The goal is to stimulate intergenerational dialogue and raise public awareness of the interconnectedness of generations and the social and economic value older adults bring to Portland.

Portland’s age-friendly model is now spreading to other municipalities in the Portland metro area, including Lake Oswego, reports Kaiser.

Mary’s Woods at Marylhurst is itself implementing aspects of the age-friendly community model. For instance, it partnered with a regional transportation system to create a shuttle service that goes up and down major streets.

“It picks up anyone along the way,” Kaiser says, “but it’s principally focused on older individuals.” Mary’s Woods also adopted a local school, where older adults mentor young readers.

Kaiser views the larger age-friendly initiative as being in step with his organization’s social mission. “As an organization within this community,” he says, “we have a larger role to play in creating a community that is friendly and livable for all ages.”

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When Martin Walsh became Boston’s new mayor in 2014, one of his top priorities was to make Boston an age-friendly city that’s thriving and inclusive for all.

Amy Schectman, president/CEO of Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly in Boston, applauds the mayor’s mission. She looks at the age-friendly movement from the dual perspective of someone who directs an affordable senior housing organization and holds a master’s degree in urban planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“A city is enriched by having people of all ages,” she says. “If you don’t have places where seniors can safely and comfortably engage in civic life, you lose a great deal of wisdom, energy, guidance and thoughtfulness. The age-friendly umbrella embraces that notion.”

As part of the Age-Friendly Boston effort, Walsh created a task force to develop Boston 2030, a master plan for the city’s future housing needs. In connection with that, Schectman served on a special task force that focused specifically on affordable housing needs for older adults.

While housing is just one aspect of an age-friendly city, it is a vital part, says Schectman. When housing costs become an onerous burden for older adults, other necessities—such as medication and nutritious food—get neglected.

“There’s also the risk of isolation,” Schectman adds. “Chronic loneliness is as big or even a bigger public health problem than obesity or smoking. Housing is a superb platform to get people connected.”

Age-Friendly Boston is in the data-gathering phase of its project, says Emily Shea, commissioner for the Commission on Affairs of the Elderly for the City of Boston. “We’re listening to and learning from our constituents,” she says.

The first of a series of semi-monthly listening sessions began on May 8 in neighborhoods across the city. In addition, city officials are going out to talk to people at group meetings, such as at senior centers and civic associations, as well as at coffee shops and grocery stores. They’ll also use the “City Hall to Go” truck, a sort of mobile city hall, to reach out to residents.

“We’ll hear what our residents want to see for themselves as they grow older in the city,” Shea says. “From there, we’ll craft an action plan. We want to create our plan based on what our residents tell us.”

When Ecumen was ready to launch another senior housing project in Apple Valley, MN, the executive team decided to design the facility in accordance with the WHO age-friendly community guidelines as much as possible. They also knew that Mayor Mary Hamann-Roland was eager to find ways to make her city of 50,000 more age-friendly.

“So we thought why not talk with her about looking at not just this specific project, but also at what we could do to help the city move down the road toward age-friendliness,” says Steve Ordahl, senior vice president of business development at Ecumen, headquartered in Shoreview, MN.

In the fall of 2014, community leaders and members of the general public gathered for a three-day workshop to discuss ideas for making Apple Valley age-friendly. Helping them through the process was Vitalocity!, a business consultancy founded by Ecumen; Kendal Corporation, a senior living provider headquartered in Pennsylvania; and BusinessLab, a consulting firm based in Scotland.

Since the founding of Vitalocity! in 2012, other international entities have joined the consortium: Perkins Eastman (land use planning and architecture), Sodexo (food service and facilities management), Nestle (food and beverage products) and IBM (technology). Any of these partners can make themselves available to work with communities on their age-friendly projects.

“Making your community age-friendly doesn’t happen overnight, and some of the steps are daunting,” Ordahl says, “especially as [they] relate to infrastructure, such as creating more green space, improving public transportation and so on. You need a roadmap. That’s what Vitalocity! is all about—offering solutions that communities can undertake.”

In most cases, local governments are the ones that get the ball rolling toward age-friendliness. “Dedicated, committed, visionary political leadership is key,” Ordahl says. “Without that, you can’t get to first base.”

LeadingAge organizations have a role to play in these endeavors, too, in Ordahl’s view. In doing so, they carry out their mission and obligations as not-for-profits.

“This as a way to provide a service for the community good,” Ordahl says, “by reaching outside the boundaries of your brick and mortar. You also solidify your position as a thought leader in your community.”