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Best Cities, States & Places

Communities Seek to Be Age Friendly

More retirees are looking for places to call home that can accommodate their wants and needs, but aren't assisted living facilities.

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Like many couples, Catherine Berger and husband raised their children in a suburban single-family house—in a subdivision an hour from downtown Atlanta. But after the kids left home and her husband died, she says, "there was nothing in the community for me."

Fourteen years ago, Berger, 73, moved into a townhouse in Inman Park, an Atlanta neighborhood known for its historic Victorian homes. She can walk to a hub of restaurants, parks, theaters and a variety of neighborhood activities. "It's an attractive community for people growing older who don’t want to be isolated and who want to continue a very active life,” she says.

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Now Berger and a team of volunteers are working to make Inman Park an even better place for older residents to stay put. A former director of the Atlanta region’s Area Agency on Aging, Berger is heading a local initiative to turn Inman Park into a “Lifelong Community”—a place where a range of housing and transportation options and expanded access to recreation, education and social services will enable residents of all ages to lead healthy, socially active and independent lives.

To that end, Lifelong Inman Park, which is part of the neighborhood association, is working with city officials to improve sidewalks and street lighting so older people can walk safely. Berger is talking with developers about converting multi-unit houses into single-floor apartments that are easy for older adults to manage. And the local park is opening a bocce court. “We want to make sure that older people are included in anything that happens in the community,” she says.

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Inman Park is one of more than 15 communities that have been designated as Lifelong Communities by the Atlanta Regional Commission, the area’s planning agency. The question at the heart of the initiative: In a metropolis of sprawling suburbs, how do you plan for a massive demographic shift in which the percentage of Atlanta’s population that is age 60 and older will grow from 10% in 2000 to 20% by 2030?

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The Atlanta area is among hundreds of communities nationwide that are beginning to grapple with this longevity challenge. For many, the postwar American dream meant a single-family home and a car in the driveway. But these are “deal-breakers for older people,” says Kathryn Lawler, manager of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Aging and Health Resources Division. “It means that someone needs a different way to get to the symphony because they can’t drive at night anymore,” she says. And if empty-nester baby boomers want to downsize, many prefer housing that is closer to services and to other people, Lawler says.

Nearly 90% of people age 65 and older want to remain in their homes and communities as long as possible, according to a survey by the AARP Public Policy Institute and the National Conference of State Legislatures. To make it easier for them to do so, communities—usually under the auspices of local governments—are embarking on initiatives to become “age friendly.”

These communities are reviewing needs across the aging spectrum. They’re mulling the best way to provide a growing number of frail, homebound seniors with nutritious meals, affordable home health care and even library-book delivery. For retiring baby boomers who want to remain productive, cities and towns are developing new opportunities for volunteering, lifelong learning and work. Localities also are reviewing zoning codes to encourage multi-family housing near shops, senior centers and entertainment.

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Advocates say such age-friendly initiatives will benefit people of all ages. “Boomers and millennials both want walkable amenities and convenient transportation,” says Nancy LeaMond, executive vice president of AARP. More than 100 cities and towns are members of the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities, which is affiliated with the World Health Organization’s global age-friendly cities project. Both initiatives are prodding communities to become age-friendly in eight “domains,” such as providing adequate health services, convenient housing and opportunities for social participation. (For information on AARP’s project, go to www.aarp.org/livable-communities.)

To be sure, retrofitting communities can be daunting and costly. But advocates point to potentially large economic payoffs. For instance, new transit options and sidewalk improvements that make it easier for older people to get around can increase physical activity, improve health and cut medical costs in part by reducing costly falls, according to a report for Grantmakers in Aging, which provides grants to cities for age-friendly initiatives.

Plus, age-friendly services that enable older workers to stay on the job can help companies cope with workforce shortages and can “be an important economic development strategy,” says Alan DeLaTorre, co-author of the Grantmakers report and co-coordinator of the Age-Friendly Portland and Multnomah County initiatives in Oregon. He points to a program in Portland that promotes “encore careers” by helping people age 50 and older create entrepreneurial ventures. “Older workers have more spending power and give more to charity than millennials,” says DeLaTorre, research associate at Portland State University’s Institute on Aging.

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Of course, age-related services have been around for years. But increasingly, communities are taking a broader approach to the longevity issue. In May, the city and county of Los Angeles announced the creation of Purposeful Aging L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti directed 14 city departments to name a Purposeful Aging point person. Among the issues departments must consider: changes in regulations to increase affordable senior housing, an expansion of wellness programs, and strategies to promote employment of older residents.

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A government agency tends to focus on its specific agenda, whether it’s housing, parks or education, without necessarily considering the impact on older people, says Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging. With a government initiative such as the one in Los Angeles, department officials must “take changing demographics into account when making plans,” he says, and that “potentially creates a positive impact.”

Following a similar citywide review in 2009, New York City announced 59 initiatives to improve the quality of life of older adults. For older residents with disabilities who don’t live in neighborhoods with supermarkets, school buses are transporting people from senior centers and senior housing to shop for food. And the city is recruiting artists to conduct art classes at senior centers in return for studio space.

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Such efforts are gaining traction as communities begin to change attitudes toward the value of older adults, Irving says. Communities will invest in housing, transportation, and volunteer and college programs, he says, when we “believe in the notion that older people are important and have something to contribute to society.” The Milken Institute ranks 352 cities in its Best Cities for Successful Aging analysis.

Getting From Here to There

One of the first steps that many communities take is assessing walkability. Creating pedestrian-friendly streets and parks is a top priority, especially for older residents who live within walking distance of shops, public transit and health care facilities.

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Numerous communities are recruiting camera-wielding volunteers—both younger and older residents—to conduct “walkability audits.” These surveys identify problems that make it difficult for older people to get around, such as sidewalks that are broken or too narrow for wheelchairs, and traffic lights that change too fast for an older adult to get across the street.

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One success has been New York City’s Safe Streets for Seniors program. The city studied 25 areas with high rates of pedestrian deaths and injuries among residents 65 and older. It installed pedestrian “refuge islands” on wide streets and increased signal timing to give pedestrians more time to cross. Pedestrian injuries and fatalities among seniors have declined since the changes were made, according to city officials.

In an ideal livable community, older residents who no longer want to drive would live within walking distance or an easy bus or transit ride to hubs of shops and activities. But millions of seniors, particularly those in the suburbs, don’t live near fixed-route transportation. Many communities are trying to fill in some gaps by encouraging the building of new senior housing and creating on-demand transportation options.

Cobb County, near Atlanta, approved a new “residential senior living district” zoning category that, says County Commission Chairman Timothy Lee, “enables independent senior living mixed in with subdivisions.” These tend to be small gated communities with duplexes or rowhouses on small lots, he says.

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Communities also are attempting to rezone single-family neighborhoods to allow the construction of “middle housing,” such as duplexes and triplexes and cottage clusters around courtyards. The Portland City Council recently amended its 2035 growth management plan, directing city planners to study the rezoning of single-family neighborhoods near transit stations, bus routes and business centers.

As older adults give up their cars, transportation will be a big challenge, especially for rural and suburban residents. Many cities and nonprofits are filling the gaps with services targeted to seniors and those with disabilities. For example, West Hartford, Conn., and Sun City, Ariz., are among 15 communities where iTNAmerica affiliates provide door-to-door rides to older people for any reason, whether it’s to shop or to visit the doctor. Riders pre-fund an account to pay for rides, and volunteer drivers use their own cars.

In March, Altamonte Springs, a city of nearly 43,000 residents in central Florida, partnered with Uber to create a specially designed program. By tapping a city-only smartphone app, residents can request an Uber ride and get a 20% discount on any trip within the city. “We wanted to see if we could make transit alternatives more convenient for people,” says City Manager Frank Martz. Although this new Uber program is available to everyone in the city, Martz says that “anecdotally, seniors are using it, particularly to shop and to meet and greet.” City and private-sector funds reimburse Uber drivers for the discounted rides.

Small Efforts Can Add Up

Businesses and local service providers are trying to become more attuned to the needs of their older customers. And older volunteers are pointing the way.

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In the Portland area, Elders in Action, an advocacy group, sends out volunteer sleuths with checklists to see how businesses are accommodating older customers. Are signs easy to read? Are floors level? Is seating available? Is the restroom easy to find? When it comes to a shopkeeper communicating with a customer who has mild hearing loss, Barbara Bernstein, the group’s executive director, says making eye contact and “slowing things down can help older adults continue to engage.” Nearly 300 businesses in the Portland area display decals showing they are “certified age friendly.”

Elders in Action volunteers are also focusing on libraries. Karen Wackrow, 65, has visited several library branches, looking at lighting, the width of aisles, the size of the signage font, and whether chairs have arms that are high enough so that older people can easily sit down and get up.

Wackrow and her husband moved to the Portland area from Oak Park, Ill., four years ago to be closer to their two daughters. While she’s helping her new community become more age friendly, her work with Elders in Action is also a way for her to become more involved in the community as she gets older—one of the major goals of age-friendly initiatives. Her husband is a docent at a local cultural institution. “We are an active couple,” she says. “We look for things that interest us.”

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Besides participating in the Elders in Action process, the Multnomah County Library system in the Portland area offers many age-friendly services. It delivers books to homebound older adults and retirement homes. Many branches offer art classes, computer education, job-seeking help and lectures for older adults.

Reducing social isolation is a major goal of the age-friendly movement. Older people who don’t have social relationships are more likely to suffer from mental and physical health issues, according to experts. By improving streets, transit, and educational and recreational activities, an older person may be more likely to get out of the house and see other people.

Such activities can take the form of senior-only hours at New York City pools or a gardening program in Tucker, Ga., a small city 15 miles from Atlanta. With money from Grantmakers in Aging, the Tucker Lifelong Community initiative built raised garden beds so that people with creaky knees and those in wheelchairs could easily plant vegetables and flowers.

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Lois Ricci, a university gerontology instructor who leads the Tucker initiative, says a garden is one way to make friends for someone who may not get out much. “Maybe you start by planting, and then you start talking to somebody and you have a cup of coffee,” Ricci says. “It can change your whole life.” Ricci, 70, says she’s consulting with developers of a new mixed-used center to consider older adults’ needs, including benches and the choice of shops. Ricci says the initiative also is looking into building a cadre of volunteer drivers, and it has used a grant to build railings on stairs that lead into many shops. “Sometimes, it’s just the little things that need to be done to make a big difference,” Ricci says.