The ideas for many of my age-friendly articles come from the perspective of others. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that “age-friendly service providers, public officials, community leaders, faith leaders and business people: recognize the great diversity among older persons, promote their inclusion and contribution in all areas of community life, respect their decisions and lifestyle choices, and anticipate and respond flexibly to aging-related needs and preferences.”
AARP uses the term “livable community” which they define “as a community that is safe and secure, has affordable and appropriate housing and transportation options, and offers supportive community features and services. Once in place, those resources enhance personal independence; allow residents to age in place; and foster residents’ engagement in the community’s civic, economic, and social life. In a livable community, people of all ages can go for a walk, safely cross the street, ride a bike, get around without a car, live comfortably, work or volunteer, enjoy public places, socialize, spend time outdoors, be entertained, go shopping, buy healthy food, find the services they need, and make their city, town, or neighborhood a lifelong home.”
These are wonderful concepts and I support them completely. A few things strike me about the AARP and WHO notions. First, they are global and all-encompassing, reflecting the many aspects of peoples’ existences. AARP focuses a little more on the all-age aspect, whereas WHO specifically targets elders. However, an underlying theme is that what is good for seniors is good for everyone – no matter what age.
Second, to achieve what these definitions suggest, an entire community must come together and pledge to make positive change. Residents like you and me, community agencies and city departments, businesses, and, importantly, elected officials must all commit to taking on age-friendliness as a compelling strategy for now and the future since there will be more and more of us agers.
Lastly, these statements talk about “them” and not “us.” This may seem a small point, but to me it’s huge. If we are to plan for the future we must accept that we are the population under discussion. We need to stop talking about ourselves as if we were a distant, disconnected “other” group. Instead, we must start talking about you and me.
Taking that notion, I think about what “age-friendly” means to me in my personal life.
For instance, what does “living comfortably” really imply? It may have different interpretations depending on individual lives, but for me it means having a nice place to live that I can afford. It doesn’t mean living luxuriously, but it also doesn’t mean reducing the quality of my housing. I worked hard for many years to attain a reasonable place to live. Four years ago I was able to find a condo for down-sizing. I no longer wanted to worry about keeping up my house. Yet, if I had waited, I could not afford what my condo costs today and I would be stuck in a place that needed maintenance as we – the house and I – got older together.
Another is “inclusion in all aspects of community life.” What does that actually mean? I have lived in this city for more than 47 years; consider this place my home; have family here, friends with whom I have coffee; and know my way around its streets. I have been involved in aspects of community life. That kind of involvement is there for others to join in and many do. Yet, I have been at meetings about seniors where people didn’t ask my opinion, or didn’t listen if I gave it anyway. Was it because I have grey hair? It is not only about being involved; it is about being listened to as a credible voice among the voices of differing ages.
And what about “find the services they need” (note the “they”)? I haven’t yet been in the position of needing services. I still drive and I know what the transportation options are. My health has been good and I have access to good medical care. If I need someone to talk to, I can find a comforting listener. A common problem for me and others is that we may not necessarily know that we require services before the need arises. So, maybe this is something to talk to my kids about – do they know where to find services for me if they need them?
Where I live, we are coming up on a critical election in November when we vote for a new mayor, and incumbent or new city councilors. As seniors, what would we want our elected officials to be thinking about – for us? What questions do we want them to answer – for us? How will they work to make my city age-friendly and livable, not from a high level platform, but from the inside of our aging lives?