This article first appeared on the PBS NewsHour website.
It felt like a bad joke — worse than the one about the chicken. Whenever Ed Aarons tried to cross the road in his New York City neighborhood, he never quite made it to the other side.
As soon as the crosswalk signal said go, the 83-year-old moved quickly. "I trained myself to rush across, to give myself a certain allotted time to make it across," he said. "And I never did it." By the time he made it to the middle, the light would change, the cars would fly, and there Aarons stood in the median — "trapped," he said.
But that was several years ago, before New York — a place famous for its youthful buzz — paused momentarily to come to grips with the fact that its population is growing older. Today roughly 11 percent of the city's 8 million people are over the age of 60. By 2030 it will be closer to 20 percent.
It's not just a New York phenomenon. Pick almost any spot in the world, and the trend's much the same. The graying of the global population is "one of the most significant historic shifts in the history of the world," said Dr. Linda Fried, dean of the School of Public Health at Columbia University. "And we're not planning enough. In fact, we're barely planning."
Barely, but there is progress. These days roughly 100 redesigned intersections mean that Ed Aarons has a few more seconds when he's trying to cross some of the city's streets. The initiative has spent millions on erecting new benches for resting and acquiring more buses for getting around. There are even more recreational and educational courses to help seniors exercise or learn a new skill, like how to use an iPad.
It's thanks in large part to a group called Age-Friendly New York City, created in 2009, when the Office of the Mayor, the New York City Council and the New York Academy of Medicine realized that the city was vastly underprepared for a future — and a very near one, at that — when there will be more elderly adults in the city than school-age children.
The group's efforts aim to make the Big Apple not only more accessible for elderly New Yorkers but to make it more aware of its vast and largely under-utilized potential as customers, volunteers, employees and students.
Doing so, Fried said, would mean more opportunities for everyone. "The 'dirty little secret' on this planet," she told Hari Sreenivasan of PBS NewsHour, "is that anything you design that will facilitate access, engagement, safety, enjoyment and participation by older people turns out to be good for all age groups. So you are not designing just for one age group, but you are insuring the engagement and contributions of all age groups by doing that."
In New York, organizers say much remains to be done. No. 1: Making the notoriously expensive city more affordable for seniors. "How expensive it is to be housed in New York is a challenge," according to Ruth Finkelstein, who leads the group's private-sector efforts.
Following is Age-Friendly New York City's checklist of 8 steps every city should be taking to help its residents age with dignity, mobility and independence.
1. Tap into the expertise of older adults. To build a successful age-friendly city, consultations with older adults are imperative. Older adults are the experts on their own needs and the talents and skills of older adults are assets for your city.
2. Engage multiple sectors. Government cannot do it alone. Encourage public and private partners from multiple sectors to take part in the effort to be more inclusive of older adults, both as a business opportunity and a moral imperative. Museums, theaters, grocery stores, banks, pharmacies, churches and block associations can all be leaders in creating age-friendly cities.
3. Recognize older adults as contributors to the economy. Older adults are consumers, workers and entrepreneurs. Educate businesses about older adult consumer needs. Support employers in recognizing the value of older employees and educate managers in how to create age-friendly work environments. (See this Age Smart Employer Compendium for a guide to age-friendly workplace practices.) And enhance opportunities to better serve older entrepreneurs.
4. Insure that older adults know about existing opportunities and resources. Expand and more widely publicize college and university offerings for older adults to meet the high demand for job training, technology classes and lifelong learning opportunities. Work with public libraries and cultural institutions to create programming that is inclusive, affordable and accessible.
5. Adopt an "age-in-everything" approach to planning. Redesign street intersections with the safety of older adults in mind. Focus on areas near shops and services and on areas with high rates of pedestrian injuries. Add public seating on streets in accordance with location recommendations from older adults. In addition, insure that all municipal emergency plans appropriately address the needs of older adults, who are often disproportionately affected.
6. Advocate for improvements in public transportation. People over 65 make up 54 percent of those who use public transit. Focus on making transportation affordable, accessible and welcoming to older passengers. Good lighting, clear signage and courteous drivers can be just as important as having an appropriate infrastructure in place.
7. Increase accessibility to opportunities that promote health and socialization. Expand efforts to make parks, walking trails, swimming pools, beaches, recreation centers and public events accessible and welcoming to older adults. Offer fitness and recreational programming designed for and of interest to older people. Assure that disease prevention programs are culturally and geographically adapted to better include older people. Chronic-disease prevention in older adults can improve health and reduce health care costs.
8. Work toward affordable, supportive housing solutions. Age-friendly initiatives include offering tax incentives for new affordable senior or mixed-age housing developments, welcoming HUD Section 202 housing, introducing home-share programs, implementing floor captains in high- rise buildings, creating housing that supports grandparents raising grandchildren and adding supportive services to existing housing with high concentrations of older adults. Consider bringing Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs) and Aging Improvement Districts to your neighborhood. This toolkit from Age-Friendly New York City can get you started.
On the September 4 PBS NewsHour broadcast, Hari Sreenivasan examined the efforts of Age-Friendly New York City: