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Age-Friendly Communities: AARP Program Spreads The Movement

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By 2030, nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population will be 65 and older, according to the federal Administration on Aging. Anticipating the challenges of accommodating this record-breaking population of senior citizens, last week the AARP launched its nationwide Network of Age-friendly Communities program with pilot programs in several states and the District of Columbia. The network, affiliated with a World Health Organization (WHO) program, will support communities with information on best practices gathered both nationally and globally.

The program looks at eight areas designated by WHO as most influential on quality of life for older people: outdoor space, housing, transportation, health services, community engagement, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic participation, and employment -- and how they knit together. Huff/Post50 spoke with Amy Levner, AARP's manager of education on livable communities, about the challenges facing communities as they seek to accommodate an aging population.

What does an "age-friendly" community look like? Let's say I'm someone in my late 60s who lives in one of these communities -- describe to me what I see, hear and experience as I navigate my environment.

If you take transportation and social participation and put those together, someone will have really easy access to get to places where they can gather -- community centers, or perhaps meeting a friend at a coffee shop. They can get across the street easily, there are wide sidewalks that are available for people on the go, but also for people who might want to stop and linger and visit. People don't have to worry about whether they have a car or not, or they don't worry about whether they can get in or out of their home or not, to get around the community. Those kinds of things will make it so that someone can live there for a long time comfortably‚ no matter what age they are.

What will you be emphasizing in these pilot programs?

This is going to be up to each of the communities that signs on. Some of them might have a great transportation network already, so they may need to focus on housing, for example, in ensuring that people have the ability to live near that transit. Or, in other places, there may be really great social participation and an engaged community, but access to services is difficult, so creating transportation networks and systems is going to be important. And that can be something as simple as installing or widening sidewalks, installing bike lanes, making intersections safer in general; to more complex things, like trying to figure out how to institute a circulator bus, or other transportation systems that will help people get around more easily.

What will be the most challenging adaptations communities will have to make to accommodate an aging population?

I think some of the infrastructure changes can be a challenge. [The World Health Organization] created this program for urban areas, but I think as more and more communities that are a little less urbanized join the network, they're going to have to figure out some of the infrastructure challenges around roads, and again, transportation. Housing‚ keeping housing affordable, because I think one of the challenges is that if you create communities like this, not only are they going to be popular for people who are aging, they're going to be popular for everybody. So, insuring that people have equal access to all the great benefits of these kind of communities is going to be a great challenge. And in some places they need to learn how to knit together their departments. Local agencies like the Department of Housing, Department of Transportation, Parks and Recreation, all work together. And I think that can be a big challenge for some communities where they've each had their own budgets and operated separately over time.

What are some of the greatest risks to seniors (and people of all ages) residing in non-age-friendly communities?

The greatest risks are things like social isolation; not being able to have access to the services they need daily. The obvious thing that comes to mind is healthcare. Social isolation can take a toll on people's health. Not being able to be an active member of the community is really harmful for everyone. The other thing is, again, access to adequate housing. A lot of people want to stay in their homes as they age, but unfortunately their homes aren't aging as well [as they are]. And that's where you get into the economic problems: if you have isolated people with no healthcare, it's sort of natural to think that the local services such as ambulance services are going to be taxed at a higher level. People are going to start to rely on things that the communities really just won't be able to provide; there's too much demand.

What kind of financial investment is required to make communities more age-friendly? How might these changes and improvements be financed?

I think this will force communities to get really creative about their budgets. Again, by breaking down some of the barriers that have been put in place between local agencies they may be able to use their budgets more effectively. This is an economic incentive, frankly: an opportunity for small businesses, for cities. If they can create a place where people want to be, then there will be more people engaging with these local businesses and services, and the economic development will only increase. And I think that's why we're seeing this growing interest on the part of local leaders: they're seeing they can get greater access [to the economic power of a vibrant senior population].

Finally, what's the greatest challenge facing communities as they seek to become more age-friendly?

I think that the greatest challenge is going to be if they do nothing! If communities really start working on this and thinking holistically about everyone that lives there, if they can plan for the needs of an aging population, then they automatically check off the needs of all of their constituents. And I think that the communities that are really going to face great challenges are the ones that don't do anything. They're the ones who are going to be left behind, and be in much more dire straits economically.

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