The Burgeoning Trend of Age-Friendly States
How governments and AARP are making states better places to grow older
You’ve probably heard about age-friendly communities; maybe you even live in one of the 305 cities and towns with the AARP “Age-Friendly Community” designation. But what you might not know — and what I learned attending the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) conference in Boston last week as a Journalist in Aging Fellow — is that a few states are now designated as age-friendly, too.
So far, New York, Massachusetts and Colorado have been granted the age-friendly state designation by AARP, joining AARP’s new Network of Age-Friendly States. On November 14, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order to “improve health and well-being of New Yorkers across the lifespan.” Other states, such as New Hampshire, Rhode Island (which has the highest proportion of residents over 85), New Jersey, Tennessee, North Carolina and Oregon may follow.
What It Takes to Be an Age-Friendly State
“It’s not so much a designation as enrollment in a program,” said Danielle Arigoni, director of livable communities at AARP. “It’s a commitment to growing in an age-friendly way, not a certification that we stamp and then you’re done.”
To get the AARP designation, a state needs to complete an application and the governor must commit to a process including an assessment, surveys, an action plan and implementation. In Colorado, Arigoni said, part of the commitment is to enroll 100 more communities in the AARP Age-Friendly Network within five years.
At the GSA conference, Alice Bonner, Secretary of Massachusetts’ Executive Office of Elder Affairs, told me that making a state age-friendly is partly "about ageism, so people don’t look at an old person as someone who’s frail and has cognitive impairment or a disability.” That's a major concern in her state since more than 30 percent of Massachusetts residents are over 60; in the next 20 years, older adults are expected to make up 30 percent or more of the population of most of the state’s 351 cities and towns.
When States Have Huge and Tiny Communities
I have to admit I was a little dubious when I first heard about the idea of age-friendly states. After all, the needs of residents in a place like New York City (population: 8.6 million) are, in many ways, much different from those in, say, the upstate New York village of Esperance (population: 341). As Bonner told me about making Massachusetts age-friendly: “There is no one-size-fits-all,” adding that “transit issues in the Berkshires [a rural, artsy area in western Massachusetts] are completely different than in Boston.”
What I learned from a variety of state officials and AARP, however, is that the designation doesn’t mean every community in a state must adopt the same age-friendly programs and policies. Instead, states designated as age-friendly share resources and expertise; then, individual communities put into place what makes the most sense for them.
“There is no shortage of great ideas. The challenge is figuring out how to use the resources we have in the most effective fashion,” said GSA speaker Jody Shue, executive director of Age-Friendly Rhode Island.
One idea being piloted there: integrating behavioral health services at a Providence, R.I. senior housing facility by adding a full-time mental health clinician. Another: Community Table Night, where restaurants in one town provided free glasses of wine at dinner to older people looking for others with whom they could have a meal together.
In the Age-Friendly New York announcement for his new executive order, Cuomo said: “As the nation’s first age-friendly state, we are committed to incorporating health needs and smart growth initiatives among all state agencies to ensure all New Yorkers lead their best lives.”
Age-Friendly Rhetoric and Reality
That kind of rhetoric sounds great. But it’s easy for politicians to say they want their states to be age-friendly — or that their states are age-friendly. It's something else entirely to make that happen in a meaningful way.
It means getting state and local agencies doing more to serve older people. For instance, “How do you leverage the ice skating rink so 80-year-old guys have access?” noted Bonner. In New Hampshire — where 70 percent of communities have populations of 7,000 and under — Goffstown (pop. 17,651) has launched a pilot program to provide bus service for older residents.
Making a state age-friendly often means getting outside funding. For instance, the Tufts Health Plan Foundation just invested nearly $270,000 to accelerate age-friendly efforts in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. All told, this foundation has funded $3.7 million for age-friendly communities in those three states.
Becoming age-friendly also means finding out what older residents want and need. In Massachusetts, “we started with listening sessions across the state and asked people what are the biggest issues in aging for them,” said Bonner.
How Interested Are Businesses in Age-Friendly States?
Employers and businesses, sadly, often seem to be slow in jumping on the age-friendly train.
Bonner said one of Massachusetts’ age-friendly goals is that when employers see job applications from older people, they say: “That’s somebody I want on my team.” But Marianne Raimondo, a Rhode Island College professor who founded Age-Friendly Rhode Island, said at the GSA conference: “We met with CVS [the largest company in the state with headquarters there]. We didn’t get too far.”
The state government officials I heard speak at the GSA conference said it’s not the size of the state that determines whether it will, or can, become age-friendly. Small states just have to find their own ways to get it done.
“Our approach is very different than Massachusetts'," said Laura Davie, co-director of the Center on Aging and Community Living at the University of New Hampshire. "We don’t have a state infrastructure or a Secretary of Elder Affairs… We have the New Hampshire Alliance for Healthy Aging (a statewide coalition of 170 organizations)."
Added Bonner: “What you need is a critical group of champions to say ‘This is important. We have to act now.’”
Those champions can include retirees, volunteering their services and expertise on state age-friendly efforts.
“We need to figure out how to care for one another as we get older,” said Bonner. “This is not about somebody else; a bunch of 90-year-old people over there. This is about you — however old you are — and it’s about us.”
This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and The Commonwealth Fund.