Hundreds of communities around the world— both big and small — are working to make sure people can live there from birth to old age.
Take John Holliday, a 71-year-old rural Maine resident who walks for his health. He uses a paved pathway in Bethel, population 2,600, in the summer. But the winter’s cold and ice is a challenge for Holliday, who uses forearm crutches, so he does laps at a private school gym, recently made available for seniors.
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Bethel is one of the more than 130 towns, cities and counties across the U.S. that have joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities since the program was launched almost five years ago. To join, communities must commit to planning ways to enrich life for their older residents, who are a growing population in the U.S.; the number of people 65 and older is expected to nearly double by 2050.
“We think there are a lot of opportunities to focus on the needs of older adults and in the process make the community better for everyone,” said Jana Lynott of the AARP Public Policy Institute.
Such changes often include better infrastructure, such as more accessible sidewalks or transportation options for seniors who don’t drive anymore, as well as things to keep seniors socially active, like technology classes.
The Fort Worth City Council approved an age-friendly plan this month. Mayor Betsy Price, who has long focused on fitness, said it was important for her city of about 850,000 get the label.
“I’m 67, I want to be active and be engaged,” she said, adding, “Part of aging in place is that people don’t get isolated.”
A walkability study led to additional sidewalks and ramps in a neighborhood near downtown Fort Worth, which in turn brought out all kinds of people milling about and going to parks — including mothers with strollers and people in motorized wheelchairs.
“I talk to the neighbors more,” said Eva Bonilla, 67, who was inspired to become an AARP volunteer after helping with the study.
In addition to being part of the AARP network, Washington, D.C., has dozens of neighborhoods that are part of the 360-village-plus Village to Village Network, which helps people form support systems to age in place. Those range from neighbors helping each other by running errands or pet-sitting to organizing activities like book clubs and museum visits.
Even people who aren’t yet retirement age are thinking ahead and considering such concepts, said the network’s executive director, Natalie Galucia.
“I think we’re seeing that culture shift a little bit,” she said.
The city’s programs include one that gives grants to make improvements that will allow people to stay in their homes as they grow older, the city’s AARP age-friendly coordinator Gail Kohn said.
In the Macon-Bibb County, Georgia, a community of about 155,000, the revitalization of a park — including restoring a fountain, installing better lighting and benches and putting in traffic roundabouts to slow down drivers — helped make it a place all ages would feel comfortable spending time, said Myrtle S. Habersham, AARP’s lead area volunteer.
Joining AARP’s network means with automatic membership in the World Health Organization’s Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities, which has about 350 cities and communities. WHO network leader Alana Officer said projects have included building community sheds where retired men can socialize and do activities like woodworking or repairing cars.
“It’s been an important mechanism for tackling social isolation and loneliness by creating activities of interest to, in this case, men,” Officer said.
Bethel’s age-friendly movement launched after several townspeople read the book “Being Mortal,” which discusses the role of medicine in relation to the quality of life for older people, said Al Cressy, a resident who’s heading up the town’s project.
“That prompted us to think: ‘Gee, there’s a message here,'” he said.
In addition to the indoor walking program, they created a volunteer-staffed driving service for older people because the area is too small for taxis or public transportation. Caroline Gould, 79, has been using the “wonderful” service to get to doctor’s appointments, and recommends it to fellow residents.
“There’s no worrying about anything and my family can stay at their work,” she said.