The Age-Friendly Movement: How it Grew and What Plans for an Older Future Could Achieve

The age-friendly movement is being embraced in small towns, cities and even states across the country. All of them see populations growing older and recognize that they must adapt. They are assessing needs and creating plans so their communities will be great places for residents of all ages to live in the future. The Gerontology Institute Blog invited three of the leading age-friendly voices in Massachusetts to discuss the movement — what it has achieved and where it is going.

Michael Festa is the Massachusetts state director of AARP, the leader in developing age-friendly community networks across the country.  Nora Moreno Cargie is president of the Tufts Health Plan Foundation, a leading supporter of work in healthy living with an emphasis on older adults. Jan Mutchler is director of the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her center works directly with communities across the state to assess age-friendly needs and develop action plans to address them. The following is an edited version of their conversation.

Q: Mike, AARP recently designated Massachusetts the nation’s second age-friendly state. How did that happen and what does it mean?

Michael Festa: It means Massachusetts is in a place where all departments of state government – not just public health and human services, but in all aspects – are committing to a process in which an age-friendly lens is applied. But the application also asks what you are doing already that is reflective of that commitment. There are a lot of things going on in communities with the age-friendly initiative. You already have a coordination of professional associations like planning councils and other groups. AARP asks, is this state in a place where we can acknowledge it is age-friendly or in the process of achieving all it is aspiring to do? The reality of what is happening in Massachusetts made it quite easy for AARP to say yes.

Nora Moreno Cargie: I would add just to that the Governor’s Council to Address Aging in Massachusetts. There’s this statewide body, to Gov. Baker’s credit. We talk to ourselves about ourselves — here you have three people who are involved in age-friendly stuff. What the governor recognized is that we had to talk to people in transportation and housing and those other areas, so that they could also become aware of what was necessary to achieve this age-friendly work.

Q: Local age-friendly planning is taking place all over the state. How did it become so popular on the municipal level?

Jan Mutchler: This whole initiative took off because there was an interest in doing something innovative, but there hadn’t been a name for it or models for it. It’s been so successful here because there were early adopters and the publicity about this being an initiative that had a name and a framework attached to it. People are excited and moving ahead because it’s been where they wanted to go all along. Communities approach all of this with very different capacities. We’re seeing a huge range needs for guidance and support.

NMC: Not everyone chooses to go through a structured age-friendly route, but that doesn’t mean they’re not doing age-friendly work. I think of the work we supported through WalkBoston. It was saying, how to we infuse a lens of an older person and their experience in walking Boston? Through support of that, we saw a more inclusive process. So it’s also honoring what is already happening. The idea of community development has to include everyone and all ages. Whatever it is, it should always include a lens of how it affects an older person.

MF: The last thing I’d say there are other partners putting real money in the community. While they may have resources to rebuild a road or build a park, it really makes a difference whether Tufts Health Plan Foundation or AARP or Mass. Councils on Aging or the Executive Office of Elder Affairs says we’ll give you a mini grant to purchase the equipment or supplies, or get the research dollars to do the survey establishing the concerns of seniors in their community to determine priorities of action.

Q: How do local projects get started?

JM: There are different origin points. In Boston, really the city started. The city owns it and is making in happen. In Salem, it started with some community leaders who said, we heard about this cool thing, it’s important and we want to do it. They drew the city in. Now the city owns it and pushes it forward. We also see some situations where it starts at a grass roots level. There’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm, and then they’re not sure where to go with that. That highlights the importance of partnerships. It’s a question of who has the capacity to make things happen most quickly. I think that certainly involves a lot of partnerships.

MF: I can’t conceive of any of this being successful if you don’t have the community commitment. It may succeed with a community commitment and without us as partners. But the other way around isn’t going to happen. We’re not in the business of being the quasi-government saying we’ve got a great idea for you and we’re going to tell you what to do. If the passion is in those communities, then they can look to us as resources and collaborators to create some efficiencies and best practices. But in the absence of that original enthusiasm it would be a failed model.

Q: Budgets are always an issue. What kinds of things can cities and towns do that don’t cost money?

MF: One example: A community wrestling with a challenge around affordable housing. They may have old housing stock, the large, four-bedroom kind, and they’re trying to figure out how you change zoning bylaws to encourage a better use of that existing home. How do you make it easier for accessory use buildings to be available for more than one generation to be on the property? Another example is ending isolation in the sense of information sharing. You can address those concerns without spending dollars. A lot of people will say, I had no idea I’m eligible for that program.

Q: Do age-friendly issues vary much from small towns to big cities?

JM: I don’t think so. The same issues come up over and over again. Everywhere there are foundational issues that really might require more fundamental rethinking about things like economic security. Whether you’re talking about Boston or Salem or some tiny community in western Massachusetts, the economic security issue is huge. Any time you start talking about how we’re going to deal with property taxes or older adults living in these massive homes that they can’t maintain, then you’re talking about more fundamental issues than tweeking around the edges. But there are community level things that can be done. Some of it revolves around the information piece, some of it does revolve around creating opportunities for people to offset expenses or generate income from their homes.

Q: Are age-friendly planning and economic security apples and oranges?

MF: I wouldn’t say it’s apples and oranges but they are parallel universes that have to be addressed differently in many respects. We are economically insecure in the extreme in Massachusetts because of the overall cost of living. There are things in an age friendly process that are not going to touch that in a significant way. On the other hand, if you apply age-friendly thinking about information sharing to tax benefits and deferrals, all of those things increase the resources of the person who would otherwise have to pay that cost or tax. If you look at other things town government could do to make it easier and less costly for people, taxes are only one element of that.

JM: We’re finishing up work now with a town that is an unbelievably age-friendly community except for the fact that a whole lot of old people can’t afford to stay there. This age-friendly issue is sort of an existential question. When older people who have lived their lives in a community get to a point where they’re running out of money, is there any kind of entitlement? Is there any kind of community responsibility? Especially in some of the communities in Massachusetts, that’s fundamentally the issue.

Q: If all the age-friendly planning and activity taking place across Massachusetts turned out to be successful, how would you imagine the impact in five or 10 years?

NMC: I think of it in terms of what an age-friendly community looks like. We talk about processes and who it includes. But what does it look like? People of all ages thriving and loving where they live. I feel like there are principles you will see followed that will ultimately make people feel they belong to this greater community.

MF: How will you see measurable improvement? One example I would give is in transportation, a universal challenge no matter what area of the state. To me, the age-friendly movement is compelling us to rethink how we address those needs. The truth is we’ve done some pretty stale things when it comes to transportation. If the state government is bold enough, they can say let’s throw the pieces off the chess board, rearrange them and maybe achieve a much better result with the same amount of dollars spent. I think this whole age friendly movement will propel that kind of thinking. What we’re talking about is acknowledging that the impending demographic change, which has been with us for quite a while, is at the point where we have to be this creative or we’re going to fail.

NMC: I love that you used the transportation example. I went to an all-day transportation conference and was fascinated by the discussion because here’s the bottom line: No one, no one, no one in that conference talked about the people who use the transportation. It was about systems, the trains, the region. We are so invested in the transportation system of the past. We have to be committed to what it is people want in the future.

JM: I think we’d be looking at the kinds of broad culture shifts and conversations across lots of different organizations and offices within a community. That infusion is what we’re looking for. The best example in our experience is the city of Boston. It has been stunning to me to see how quickly that’s happening. Everybody, no matter what their business, they know the population is getting older and they see that this is an issue that needs to be addressed and that it makes so much more sense to do it in a collaborative way.

NMC: If were to look 10 years into the future, I’d want this work to be embedded and infused in everything that our city and state governments do. We don’t plan without an inclusive process, we think about living in a community from the time you’re born until the time you die. I feel a lot of times we want to perpetuate our own particular technical assistance programs. The reality is we don’t have more money, so we have to figure out a better-coordinated approach with the money we do have.

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