Aging in Places: Age-friendliness on Our Minds

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HousingThe notions of age-friendliness are on the minds of people in my community. I feel it as I amble around my city. One way that I am aware is that the language of age-friendliness is seeping into our consciousness and speech. It is popping out in everyday situations. This election day, early voting places were not always prepared for the numbers of people who came to cast their ballots. Long lines, imperfect signage, no places to sit while waiting, and hard-to-hear verbal directions produced comments such as, “this is not age-friendly!”

In a local conservation area, the trail signs were unclear resulting in an older person getting lost. Her comment was, “this is not age-friendly.” Fortunately, she found her way out without any harmful consequences.

We have known for more than a decade that my city of Newton was and still is getting older, along with almost every other place in the state, country, and world. Right now, over 40% of Newton households include at least one person age 60 and over; that means almost 20,000 people. However, it is only in the last couple of years that we have begun to acknowledge this aging phenomenon, take the trend seriously, and start to work on it. When I first began to write for the local newspaper – almost seven years ago, there was very little awareness about the rising tide of older adults. Very few articles appeared in the press about the need to plan for aging. Ignoring the reality and implications of being in the middle of a powerful shift was a matter of practice. Actually, a few significant groups were talking about it such as AARP and the World Health Organization, but very few were listening.

This is clearly changing. For example, I see strong, practical thinking and reasonable suggestions around housing for older adults. The city has developed a Housing Strategy that acknowledges the aging community and stresses the need for age-friendly options in buildings with elevators, with one-floor living, and construction techniques that use accessible and universal design elements.

Keeping with what that Housing Strategy recommends, developers are submitting proposals that address the needs outlined in that document. These new plans not only include elevators and other amenities suitable for older people, but they incorporate the notions of affordability, and walkability to grocery shopping, pharmacies, social venues, and transportation. All of this is age-friendly.

Newton has a lot of bigger, older homes. A new, proposed Accessory Apartment ordinance will allow homeowners to create a separate unit within their homes so that they can benefit from rental income or bring family members to live in an intergenerational setting. At a recent public hearing of our Zoning and Planning Committee, members of a packed audience, predominantly spoke in strong favor of the ordinance. Couples with young children wanted to have their parents live with them; older people wanted a way to have some needed additional income; a middle-age couple could keep their big, hard-to-maintain home by renting out a unit, and not have to move away from a place they have lived for many decades. They couldn’t afford to stay otherwise. What struck me about the support for this new regulation were the age diversity and the situational differences among those in favor. Certainly, this is all about age-friendliness – but it is really about “all age-friendliness.”

I am cautiously encouraged about the progress around housing issues, but I won’t be confident until I see the Accessory Apartment Ordinance approved, and new housing developments built that are clearly age-friendly.

Much is being done on housing, but there are other areas that need age-friendly attention. We have an emerging transportation strategy that mentions the transportation needs of elders, primarily around the type of options when someone no longer has access to a vehicle. This report also identifies the lack of accessibility to trolley and commuter rail stops. For example we have eleven stops in Newton, seven (64%) are not accessible. Community input sessions and some visioning has happened, but in light of our increasing aging population and the decreasing younger population, greater attention needs to be paid to planning for the needs of elders. An overriding notion of age-friendliness is that what is good for elders is good for all. This idea works, mostly, in the reverse. If public transportation stops are accessible, if sidewalks are flat without cracks and gaps, and if crosswalks are well designed and visible, everyone, including older people, benefits.

There are multiple arenas of age-friendliness in addition to housing and transportation. There are ways to keep people of all ages engaged in the community and connected to jobs, and volunteer opportunities. We must find improved ways to help people avoid isolation and loneliness, and to make sure that outdoor spaces are easy to get to and safe. Here, where I live, we have made a good start with housing, and we must keep going on our long journey to achieve age-friendliness. I am truly excited to be on this path which is upbeat and packed with wonderful, forward-thinking people all moving along together.


  1. Marie Westburg

    December 1, 2016

    Marian, I am a senior center director and have been a caregiver for my mother-in -law for years. I want to thank you for your article and work to advocate for issues which need to be brought to the forefront in every community! Without more strong advocates the people, who need these issues to be addressed the most, will go un-served. If you are willing, I would like to share your article, through my newsletter to the aging community in my service area. We are advocating for the very same things here and I find that nothing changes with ease, or sometime ever, without the voice and elbow grease of community stakeholders. We must advocate for older adults and push aggressively through apathy/ignorance and the sludge created by bureaucracy. I would love to have you come speak here at our senior center if you ever come to Western Ma.

    • Marian Knapp

      December 1, 2016

      Marie, Thank you! Please circulate this article to anyone you think would find it useful. Where in Western, MA are you? Marian

      • Marie Westburg

        December 7, 2016

        Marian, I am in Williamsburg Ma. which is a small rural town of about 2,500 people, near Northampton Ma. We are at the foot of the hilltowns before you get to the Berkshires.

  2. Sonya Oppenheimer

    December 6, 2016

    Wow! I’ve been thinking that we’re born drunk with possibilities and then life sobers us. Hurrah for you who have decided to imbibe the champagne of possibilities again.
    A march on Washington with your son and daughter-in-law? Fabulous. My last march on Washington was for Soviet Jews. It was an awesome experience.
    How wonderful that you discovered your passion, pursued it and are able to realize that you can and are making a difference!
    I can’t wait to read about your march experience.
    Sonya Oppenheimer

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About Marian

Marian Leah Knapp, Ph.D., wants to start a new conversation about “aging with intent.” Much of what is written about elders is from the point of view of physicians, psychiatrists, gerontologists, and adult children. In her roles as author, columnist, speaker and elder activist, Marian is reporting from the front lines.
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