Age Friendly Communities: How Cities and Towns Can Adapt to Needs of Older Citizens

The city of Boston enlisted the participation of the UMass Boston Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging when it decided to develop a detailed age-friendly action plan. The center has helped cities and towns across Massachusetts assess the age friendliness of their communities and explore ways to adapt as populations grow older. Professor Jan Mutchler directs the center at the McCormack Graduate School’s Gerontology Institute. She recently talked about the experiences of communities working toward an age-friendly future. This is an edited version of her comments.

Why are cities and towns getting involved with the age friendly movement?

The older population is getting larger in virtually every city and town, and communities aren’t prepared for that. Some communities in regions like Cape Cod and western Massachusetts are getting older a lot faster because they are retirement destinations. But at a minimum it’s the aging of people who are already living in communities that contributes to the interest in the movement. Those communities may begin to reconsider what makes for a high quality of life. So you have to think, how do we run the business of our town?

Think about what kinds of things?

What’s our walkability like, can people walk to where they want to go? What happens when a lot of people can’t drive anymore or they can’t drive at night? Or what kind of housing stock do we need for people who may want to age in place but they’re sitting in a four-bedroom home that’s not working for them anymore. So whether you’re talking about housing, mobility, transportation, availability of medical services — those are all things you need to rethink. Are the things we have in place the right resources?

How does the center help cities and towns that want to become age friendly?

We spend a fair bit of time in the beginning to help them refine their goals, thinking about what their vision of age-friendly is. Some communities are very focused on the availability of age-friendly services. Others are interested more broadly in the quality of life for older adults. Some are thinking about a community that fits for all ages — they’re very intentionally working to include children and young families, but also older adults. That’s the starting point of our work with a community.

Who needs to get involved?

A community taking on an age friendly project should be talking to lots of organizations in town. It’s not something that the council on aging can do itself. At a minimum, they ought to be getting the buy-in of the board of selectmen, or the mayor. They should be talking to the police department, fire department, public works, the library — all those offices that have responsibilities for the community. Also, the non-profits that help older adults or really attend to the needs of families need to be at the table to a certain degree.

Then what happens?

Once communities have defined what they’re trying to accomplish, we can help them gather data. We can do surveys, focus groups or lead community events and then help them understand the data we obtain. Not all communities seek an official age-friendly designation but those that do need to produce a needs assessment document and an action plan. We can generate those or help communities do that. There have been just two Massachusetts communities – Boston and Salem – that have made it through the action plan phase and we’ve worked with both of them.

Salem is a smaller city. What was the experience there?

The whole process was really quite different. Salem began their initiative with two community volunteers deciding they were going to do this. They did some organization on their own and they got the buy-in of the mayor, who was wildly enthusiastic. They did some data collection and had started to write up their findings when they contacted us. We held some additional focus groups, did some independent demographic work and wrote up the action plan in consultation with them.

Is it expensive to become a successful age-friendly city?

Not necessarily. There are no rules – put this in place, this in place, this in place and then you will be declared age friendly. Some work may be done entirely with volunteers, some of it may be done in partnership with a bunch of non profits and cost the community virtually nothing. There isn’t anything that says you have to put a new transportation system in place, or you have to build this kind of housing. So I think there are lots of options for communities. None of them has to cost a lot.

What issues pop up commonly when communities conduct an age-friendly needs assessment?

The thing that comes up over and over is the need for information. People in the age-friendly world talk about transportation, housing and medical care – access to services – as the issues that must be most important. Of course they are important. But there are so many people who don’t know about services already available and waiting for them to access. They don’t know what their options already are or who to call if they need something. That lack of information is an example of something I think can be remedied without a whole lot of cost.

What kind of information surprises people when they see the results of your research about their communities?

One of the things that always takes people by surprise is the extent to which people are engaged in family caregiving. Large numbers of people are doing it and I think that takes residents by surprise. It’s work people do without talking about it or thinking about it much. They just do it. It’s their mom, their sister. The number one concern about aging in place typically is economic, people worry are they going to be able stay in their homes as they get older. That doesn’t really surprise anybody but I think to hear to volume of concern can sometimes be surprising.

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