Is Your Hometown a Place to Grow Old? Mine Is
There’s an urgent need to ready our cities and villages for the age boom — and New York is among those leading the way
I live in a small Manhattan coop, one I chose after careful research and deliberation five years ago, when my youngest son left for college and I decided to sell my home in the suburbs. The gracious building I moved into has lived up to my every hope and dream in all ways but one: Five steps lead down from the front walkway to the lobby entrance and my knees don’t handle these very well.
The good news is I'm not alone in thinking that forcing people to enter a building this way is not particularly smart or kind. Many residents felt it would be wise to create a second means of access that would work well for everyone. Last year, the co-op board commissioned a smart, new design for an entrance that residents and visitors of all ages can more easily negotiate. (Those steps are an obstacle for strollers and small children, too.) The plan leaves the steps in place but adds another point of access — a sloping walkway flanked by lush plantings. The project is slated to get under way any day now and will be a boon to all.
This whole issue got me thinking about my broader surroundings and how well they’re likely to accommodate my needs in older age. I’ve been asking myself if New York City is a place I can comfortably "age in place."
I chose my particular urban setting because of the availability of inexpensive public transportation, which could free me from driving and afford a more eco-conscious lifestyle; a seemingly endless number of cultural options; numerous places to take classes of pretty much any kind; abundant opportunities for social interactions; and the possibility of ongoing work in my field.
These were the attributes I emphasized in midlife and they’re also likely to be on my list of essentials in later life. But there are many other environmental factors to consider when evaluating the suitability of a place for older age — things that not only make it possible to remain in place but also easier, healthier and more enjoyable.
Even though I wasn’t thinking about the long term when I opted to move to Manhattan, it turns out my chosen hometown is working hard on weaving these other factors into the urban fabric. New York is at the forefront of a global movement to make cities more supportive of their older populations.
In June 2010, New York became the first member of the World Health Organization’s Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities, which intends “to foster the exchange of experience and mutual learning between cities and communities worldwide.”
A year earlier, the Office of the Mayor, the New York City Council and the New York Medical Academy (just up the block from me) launched Age-Friendly NYC, a citywide program that is making great strides toward transforming this city into a mecca for the aged, despite the weather and cost of living.
In recognition of the fact that the older population is exploding and that 30 percent or more of the people in 64 countries will be over 60 years old by 2050, the World Health Organization (WHO) introduced the WHO Age-Friendly Environments Program in 2008, “an international effort to address the environmental and social factors that contribute to active and healthy aging.”
Underlying the program is the belief that “making cities and communities age-friendly is one of the most effective local policy approaches for responding to demographic aging. The physical and social environments are key determinants of whether people can remain healthy, independent and autonomous long into their old age.”
Bearing this in mind and taking a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach, the NYC Age-Friendly program has created a blueprint for “enhancing our city’s livability for older New Yorkers.” It outlines 59 different initiatives focused on four key groupings: community and civic participation, housing, public spaces and transportation, and health and social services. They also offer up a toolkit for helping citizens establish “an Aging Improvement District in your community.”
The beauty of New York's plan is its emphasis on soliciting feedback from city residents through public meetings then establishing effective ways to respond to it. Numerous campaigns are under way, including three geared to specific neighborhoods deemed “Aging Improvement Districts.”
Some of the program’s priorities: Retiming traffic lights at intersections to give slower-moving pedestrians more time to cross, fixing cracks along streets and walkways, placing more benches along paths and in stores to provide rest spots, enhancing lighting in parks and other places to foster safety, providing additional transportation resources for non-drivers, introducing fresh produce programs for seniors, and encouraging colleges and universities to cater to older New Yorkers.
Sparked by the experiences of seniors during Hurricane Sandy, the New York Academy of Medicine recently spearheaded a project that will support older adults before, during and after disasters.
Through its local Business Initiative, Age-Friendly NYC is encouraging local businesses to install amenities for older adults, sell items tailored to their needs and provide discounts — all as part of a broader strategy to market their services effectively to the aging population.
Given the enormous buying power of boomers and seniors and the ever-growing percentage of the population they represent, it makes a great deal of economic sense for local businesses to cater to them and support their ability to remain in the community.
The MetLife Mature Market Institute just released a report called Livable Community Indicators for Sustainable Aging in Place that can help not just urban environments but also suburban and ex-urban ones adapt to the needs of older adults. Today, 75 percent of older adults live in suburbs, which means they’re car dependent at a stage of life when driving capacity has diminished and will ultimately disappear. The report’s goal is to “identify an initial list of indicators … to provide a low-cost way for cities and towns to begin to examine the needs of their aging population.”
Among the “liveable community characteristics” the report cites: accessible and affordable housing, transportation options and safe, walkable neighborhoods, and community support and services.
The plans that cities, towns and neighborhoods are now developing to integrate characteristics that help us age in place are, by necessity, ambitious and will take many years to implement in full. But as Phillip Stafford, director of Indiana University's Center on Aging and Community, wrote in this blog post: “In the next 10 years, we will see these examples replicated a thousandfold; this, not the gated village, is the future of senior living. It’s a future based on the notion that aging is about place, not body, and about relationship, not the individual quest for eternal youth.”
As for me, well, I hope all the wise actions that citizens, academicians and government officials are taking now will mean that I’ll be able to continue “to wake up in a city that never sleeps” for many more years to come.
Next Avenue originally published this article on April 3, 2013.