Age-friendly cities and communities

Photo © Daniel Laflor

We can’t avoid aging… but perhaps we can find better places to enjoy it?

More than one fifth of the world’s population will be over the age of 60 by 2050, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). That’s more than 2 billion people and triple the number of older adults recorded in 2000. In Canada, the number of people over the age of 65 will double by 2036, says Statistics Canada.

Despite some dire warnings about the “grey tidal wave” and the upcoming “burden” of an aging population, don’t go looking for disaster. Statistics also show we’re living longer and enjoying more years of vitality. Far from being a drain on society, older adults are more proactive about their health, they’re staying in the workforce longer and keeping active in the community — and they’ll continue to do so with the right opportunities and support.

Enter age-friendly environments. By changing their policies, increasing opportunities for involvement, adapting the environment and even adjusting their attitudes, communities can reap the benefits of an active and engaged population.

“Older people are a vital, and often overlooked, resource for families and for society,” said Dr John Beard, Director of the Department of Ageing and Life Course at WHO, in a recent press release. “Their contribution will only be fully realized if they maintain their health and if the barriers that prevent them engaging in family and community life are broken down.”

Age-friendly cities — what’s the latest?
You’ve likely heard about age-friendly initiatives before. The WHO is behind the worldwide effort, and four Canadian cities participated in its initial Age-Friendly Cities Project (including Saanich, British Columbia, Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, Sherbrooke, Quebec and Halifax, Nova Scotia). The success of the project led to the creation of the recently launched Age-Friendly Cities Network. To be part of the network, cities must meet certain criteria and go through an approval process.

But don’t let the name “city” fool you . While the majority of the world’s population is predicted to live in urban environments in the coming decades, smaller communities are certainly part of the landscape — especially our landscape. In Canada, the federal government’s Age-Friendly Communities Initiative draws on both the WHO’s methodology and an initiative spearheaded in 2006 by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC): the Friendly Rural and Remote Communities Initiative (which focuses on communities with a population of less than 5000 people).

Likewise, thanks to the success of its Age-Friendly Cities Project, the WHO expanded its program to include smaller communities, creating the Age-Friendly Environments Program.

But the government and the WHO aren’t the only ones promoting age-friendly changes. Non-profit organizations, provincial and municipal governments and even universities have their own programs and initiatives too. For example, there’s the Murray Alzheimer Research and Education Program (MAREP)’s Age-Friendly Communities project based at the University of Waterloo, and the University of Manitoba’s Age-Friendly Communities Research Alliance.

What does it take to be age-friendly?
While there may be many programs out there, the principles are essentially the same. Requirements target eight key areas:

Outdoor spaces and buildings: Accessibility and amenities are the focus. For instance, public areas and buildings must be clean, well maintained and safe. Streets, sidewalks and pathways are looked after and kept clear, especially during snowy months, and wheel chair ramps are present.

Another must: ample places to sit and washroom facilities that everyone can use.

Transportation: Getting around is essential for participation in family and community life. Age-friendly communities control traffic flow, provide clear and easy-to-read road signs, well-lit streets and bike paths that are away from roads and sidewalks.

For those who don’t drive, public and private transportation options that are accessible, affordable and convenient are must-haves — like a bus system that stops at convenient places like churches and doctor’s offices and a volunteer network of drivers to take people to appointments. Plenty of parking spots for disabled persons and special drop-off areas should also be part of the design.

Housing: Affordable housing options — particularly ones built with seniors’ needs and lifestyle in mind — are just one part of the equation. Older adults also need access to low-cost or free maintenance services, as well as affordable ways to make modifications, like grants and rebates.

Naturally, access to long-term care and assisted living options are important, but so are services and supports to allow people to stay in their homes as long as they wish.

Respect and social inclusion: Perhaps we need an attitude adjustment? Age-friendly communities know how to treat older adults with respect — and they have education programs in place to inform public service workers, youth and businesses. In addition, senior’s contributions to the community are acknowledged and even celebrated in the media.

On the social inclusion side, older adults should have a voice in the community. Their feedback and input is sought on important issues, and they participate on councils and other activities.

Social participation: Activities like local events, educational workshops and courses are offered to suit the needs, preferences and interests of seniors specifically (and held at convenient times and in accessible locations.) Age-friendly communities also offer a wide variety of activities that include people of all ages and backgrounds.

Fighting social isolation is also a goal with home visits and “buddy system” programs.

Communication and information: Different people turn to different modes of communication to learn about important issues, services and events — a fact which age-friendly communities must remember. Especially important are effective communication strategies to reach people who don’t access technology-based media, or who have special needs — like people with visual or hearing impairments.

Information about age- and health-related services and issues should be easy to find and understand, not just for seniors but for caregivers too.

Civic participation and employment opportunities: People are staying in the workforce longer, so providing employment opportunities with flexibly and fair pay in mind — including opportunities for self-employment — is non-negotiable. Training should also be offered to help keep skills sharp, especially when it comes to technology.

What about volunteers? Age-friendly communities should promote opportunities for older adults to get involved — and their contributions should be recognized and supported with honorariums and reimbursement for expenses like transportation.

Community support and health services: Not surprisingly, health care features prominently on this list, like access not just to nurses and doctors, but also specialized equipment, home visits and specialists on aging as well.

However, the checklist also includes home care services and services to support caregivers. There should be educational programs about elder care available, as well as respite or “day away” programs that are both accessible and affordable.

Want to know more? Read the WHO’s Age-Friendly Cities Checklist (PDF file) or read the PHAC’s Checklist of Age-Friendly Features for full details.

What the program doesn’t include is factors that can’t easily be changed, even if they affect quality of life. For instance, some people may shy away from snowy and icy climates, or areas prone to allergens and air pollution (which can aggravate chronic conditions). Age-friendly status doesn’t guarantee a low cost of living, nor does it mean access to your favourite interests and activities (like proximity to an airport if you travel frequently.)

Where can you find age-friendly cities? In the past couple of years, many Canadian cities and towns have earned their age-friendly designation. Places that have met the WHO’s criteria are allowed to claim the title of “age-friendly” and display it on their websites and marketing.

However, many cities are still works in progress with initiatives well under way to improve the environment for all ages. For instance, a recent symposium in Vancouver entitled “If we build it, will they walk?” brought together a variety of practitioners to discuss how to make the city more “walkable”. Researchers in St. John’s, Newfoundland are also seeking input from residences on ways the city could improve.

What if you don’t see an official title? Be ware that some cities may not apply for official designation at all — but the proof will be in their streets and services.

How to get involved

Neither of the guides set out by the WHO and the PHAC dictate specifically how communities can change to meet the requirements — that’s up to local governments and citizens. You’ve likely noticed that input and participation from older adults is essential, so there will be many opportunities for leadership and involvement.

How can you make a difference? Find out what initiatives are going on in your area and join a committee or focus group to make your voice heard. Nothing in the works yet? You might be the one to help get it started.

Over all, age-friendly places aren’t just about catering to a specific age group — they benefit all members of community both directly and indirectly. Rather than bracing for the “silver tsunami”, it’s time to ride the wave.