Creating Age-Friendly California

Bob Prath.
Bob Prath.

At the front lines of California’s rapidly aging demographic, California mayors and local leaders are taking a fresh course of action to make their communities age-friendly, and more livable for everyone, as part of a growing international movement.

Our unprecedented age wave requires new thinking, and many California cities have answered with inspirational and innovative ideas: more affordable housing, better senior centers, more physical activity, better signage, more public seating, walkable downtowns, improved civic engagement and heightened respect for elders.

In the mid-90’s, Roseville became the first California city to welcome a Del Webb retirement facility – Sun City – tipping the demographic of this Sacramento suburb increasingly towards older adults. Today, there are over 100 facilities in Roseville serving older adults – master plan communities, nursing homes, apartments, residential care facilities, and assisted living sites.

In many other areas the priority is transportation.

The city of Saratoga just completed a transportation pilot for adults over 65 who can no longer drive.   Selected residents participated in a cost-sharing taxi service for six weeks to help the city better understand the transportation needs of older adults.

[pullquote]Op-ed: California Voices[/pullquote]

Sausalito’s signature effort is CARSS – Call A Ride for Sausalito Seniors – which operates within the city’s tiny yet hilly environs – under two square miles. Most trips are to the grocery store, beauty parlor or medical appointments.

While these efforts are modest, the ultimate goal is to make these small steps a giant leap for aging.

And while such successes are noteworthy, they’re still not adequate for what’s ahead. A Governing magazine poll of mayors found that while a significant number felt it was important to create a community designed for all ages, only 16 percent said they were ready for the next 25 years.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has established what many communities craved – a framework and guide for inclusive and accessible environments to benefit the aging population. WHO’s effort launched in 2007 with the release of their Global Age-friendly Cities Guide, which identified eight core characteristics of an age-friendly city: outdoor spaces and buildings; transportation; housing; social participation; respect and social inclusion; civic participation and employment; communication; and community support and health services.

The WHO Age-Friendly Cities and Communities Program followed in 2010, which helped cities identify and address barriers to the well-being and participation of older adults.

Two years later, AARP’s Network of Age-Friendly Communities (AFN), became the United States affiliate for WHO, joining affiliates in countries around the world. AARP guides AFN cities and counties through a five-year process.

It’s critical to note that the work happening across the nation isn’t a competition of peers but a collaboration of like-minded groups. The WHO program and its affiliates constitute a large network where ideas and research are shared.

Meanwhile, there many other organizations conducting age-friendly planning, including Grantmakers in Aging, Dementia Friendly America, the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, and the California-based Center for Age-Friendly Excellence.

There’s harmony in this movement. Knowledge is shared freely.

Community partnerships are essential to these California networks. Typically, the partnerships involve this triad: elected and local government leaders; public and private organizations; and strong citizen groups.

Unique to California’s age-friendly movement are several positive qualities: a focus on diversity, technology and progressive views.

Meanwhile, members of WHO and AFN know that everyone benefits from age-friendly communities, which have proven to celebrate better health and reduced health care costs. They also advance compliance with California’s strict environmental and sustainability standards. Small investments can reap big dividends.

While California cities and counties vary in size, all understand that action must ultimately happen at the local level. The national debate over the cost of aging too often ignores the enormous value communities derive by keeping older adults engaged and active.

A compilation of more than 100 inspiring ideas from America’s mayors is included in AARP’s Where We Live: Communities for All Ages.

Mayor Christopher Cabaldon of West Sacramento – which won a 2014 “livability award” by the U.S. Conference of Mayors – has said the movement is about creating a city “where there’s a place that matches what a person’s needs are, and where their hopes and inspirations are met at each stage in their life.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Grantsmakers in Aging CEO John Feather will speak on age-friendly communities in San Jose on Wednesday, January 25.)

Bob Prath is the vice chair of the AARP Livable Communities Advisory Team.

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