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The New Trend in Livable Communities: Age-Friendly States

Ann Oldenburg November 18, 2019
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It’s not just individual communities catering to older adults. We are starting to see the economic benefits of adopting an agenda for age-friendly states.

A wide range of housing options. Outdoor trails and safe spaces for walking. Engaging cultural and civic activities. These are just some of the aspects that make a place age-friendly.

The notion of living this kind of happy, peaceful, healthy lifestyle stemmed from an initiative launched in 2006 by the World Health Organization “to facilitate the inclusion of older persons.” Since then, it has picked up steam in the U.S. with AARP’s Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. Coast to coast—from Sausalito, California, which joined in 2017, to Kennebunk, Maine, a member since 2015—more than 400 communities have committed to the cause.  

And now, in the latest trend, entire states are working to be age-friendly. New York, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Maine and Michigan are all on board as age-friendly states, as are Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

What does it mean, exactly? “The only playbook is the one you write for your own community,” explains James Fuccione, senior director of Massachusetts’ Healthy Aging Collaborative. His state, a leader in the field, has “351 very unique cities and towns—all with different personalities, different structures and community support,” he says. But whether you’re in Martha’s Vineyard or the Berkshires, they all have one thing in common—a commitment to being age-friendly.

“The main requirement is that you engage residents—and ask them ‘What’s important to you?’ That’s how you make your plan,” says Fuccione.

‘Aging Is an Investment’    

While the initiative was first aimed at older populations and focused on domains ranging from housing to communication to transportation, that’s not the right—or best—way to view age-friendly, say those on the front lines. It’s not just about the elderly. “One thing that gets overlooked is that younger people have a real stake in this,” says Fuccione. “Aging is an investment, just like investing in youth is an investment.”

And inclusivity isn’t just an important investment; it also makes sense. Everyone uses the targeted age-friendly services—whether it’s a bus to get to work or to the doctor, a park to play in or sit in, or sidewalks that are both walker and stroller accessible. And in some places, this includes dementia-friendly neighborhoods, too. Fuccione says “If you have a community where you have a great place to grow up and grow old, you’re age-friendly.”

Becoming age-friendly, however, won’t happen without involvement from all stakeholders. Politics and policies, government and organizations; volunteers, private partners, the workforce, a dedicated governor—all need to play a role, all need to connect.

Gail Kohn, city coordinator of Age-Friendly D.C., says the Washington initiative tackles it from three pillars: Built Environment, Changing attitudes, and Lifelong Health and Security. “People think this is about making life easier for people who are old now,” Kohn says, but that’s not the case. Life, she says, “is a building experience.” Washington, D.C.’s mayor Muriel Bowser proudly accepted an age-friendly plaque in 2017 from AARP and WHO, and renewed the initiative for five years with a 2023 Strategic Plan for areas including community health services, emergency preparedness and abuse, neglect and fraud.

There is no fee to join the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities, but you do become a “member” by committing to giving “older residents the opportunity to live rewarding, productive and safe lives.” Member benefits include access to a participating communities and experts; access to key information about the program; opportunities for partnerships with other cities, both domestic and international; mentoring and peer-review evaluation by member cities; and public recognition of the community’s commitment to become more age-friendly.

The Bottom Line

New York City was an early adopter of age-friendliness. Livable New York started in 2006 and morphed into Age-Friendly New York City through a partnership with The New York Academy of Medicine, the New York City Council and the mayor’s office. It was recently renewed under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration.

“This my 27th year in aging,” says Greg Olsen, acting director of the New York Office on Aging. “As somebody that’s worked for nonprofits and now in the governor’s office, I have a well-rounded background in the importance of community-based support services that help keep people in their homes and communities, and off Medicaid.”

He adds, “We have been a country that focuses on the medical model. We have no problem spending tons on nursing home placements.” What needs to happen is for that money to be spent on age-friendly interventions. Those, he says, “really matter to the bottom line of the community.”

He cites the stats of the older adult population to show how valuable, literally, they are: Out of all household income generated in New York state, $379 billion—63% percent—comes from adults ages 45 and older. “The point is you can’t underestimate the purchasing power of the older population.”

He also cites the number of hours that older adults spend volunteering and in philanthropic work. He talks about how they support schools without having the pressure of children who attend them; and notes they have home equity and social security. “I talk to businesses all the time and say, ‘This is why this population matters.’ If people want to leave and go to another state, they are taking home equity, pensions and volunteerism with them and leaving a gap.”

If a state is age-friendly, Olsen says, two things will happen—older adults won’t want to leave and young people from other states will want to move in. “And that benefits everybody,” says Olsen. “It’s better for the bottom line and strengthens our community – and then we can compete with South Carolina, Florida, Nevada and others. States that don’t go in this direction will be left behind.”

More states are recognizing the true value—from economic, health and social standpoints—in being age-friendly. “It’s really taking off,” says Danielle Arigoni, AARP’s director of Livable Communities.

While health policy can get stymied by politics, Danielle says being age-friendly transcends that. “It’s a non-partisan approach. It’s a community-led approach. Of the states that have enrolled, at least two—Florida and Massachusetts—have Republican governors.” She adds that “at least a half dozen are working on age-friendly designations now and in the coming year we’ll see that number double. That level of awareness is higher than ever before.”

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Ann Oldenburg

Ann Oldenburg, who started her career at The Washington Post and was a longtime culture writer at USA Today, is assistant director of the Journalism Program at Georgetown University. An advocate of lifelong learning, she is a member of the first cohort of Georgetown's new Aging & Health master’s program.

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