What it Takes to Be and Remain an Age-Friendly World

In preparation for the doubling in number of people ages 65 and older across the globe, in 2006 the World Health Organization (WHO) created the Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities to ensure older residents are respected, can actively engage in their communities and be healthy.

As the U.S. affiliate to this network, AARP began encouraging communities across the country to make their neighborhoods more accessible and inclusive. Today, there are more than 500 communities in the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities in the United States, and close to 1,000 communities worldwide working on age-friendly domains, including respect and inclusion, health, communication, housing, employment, outdoor spaces and public buildings and transportation.

Members of the age-friendly network subscribe to five interrelated tenets including commitment, capacity, collaboration, resident involvement and comprehensiveness. Community leaders commit to a five-year process, beginning with a comprehensive community assessment, followed by developing a community-wide plan, and three years of plan implementation.

Capacity building occurs through acquiring resources, engaging stakeholders and collaboration between government organizations, the local aging network, private sector, community organizations, University partners and older residents.

Resident involvement is critical to the success of age-friendly communities. As experience experts, older residents identify opportunities and challenges related to aging in place and develop solutions for change. Finally, age-friendly work is comprehensive and specific, encompassing individual, social and environmental issues. A sustainable age-friendly community initiative will be actively engaged in these interlocking tenets.

Details, Details

Age-friendly community work has been happening for well over a decade. One of the biggest limitations to sustainability is finding consistent, ongoing funding and resources. Though WHO and AARP provide in-kind support, educational resources and small grants, local entities are required to cover the costs and staffing associated with the required community-wide assessment, strategic plan development and implementation and evaluation. Entering the network requires a letter of commitment from the most senior elected official in the community to work toward becoming more livable.

The five interrelated tenets of age-friendly work are commitment, capacity, collaboration, resident involvement and comprehensiveness.

While entering the network is straightforward, meeting the work objectives is much more complex. Unfortunately, some communities complete the first two years of work but stall during the implementation phase due to a lack of capacity. Others struggle with launching a community assessment after entering into the network.

The success of age-friendly communities depends upon a patchwork of private and public funding sources, strong paid and volunteer leaders and successful collaborative efforts. However, like other aging services, age-friendly communities are chronically under-funded. Canda, a national philanthropically focused organization, found that less than 1 percent of funds from the largest private foundations in the United States go to support issues of aging, and as Hogan notes, “we’ve been conditioned to believe that government takes care of our elders. Unfortunately, in most cases, that’s just not true.”

Funding from local private foundations is a promising trend. The Tufts Health Plan Foundation is a bold leader in this area, investing millions of dollars in more than 16 projects across Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. The Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation and The Grotta Fund for Senior Care Building in New Jersey, as well as the Columbus Foundation and Osteopathic Heritage Foundations in Columbus, Ohio, have been key partners in supporting the development and implementation of age-friendly communities.

While potential funders certainly face competing community priorities, age-friendly community work is expansive and specific. As Dr. Kathy Black with the University of South Florida notes, “age-friendly work is a mile wide and a mile deep.” Seeking funding for programs and research related to transportation, housing, emergency preparedness and technology allows communities to access funding from places that are not traditionally age-focused. As most age-friendly efforts are often led by just one or two paid or unpaid individuals, building relationships with local government officials, nonprofit leaders and older adult residents is key to building financial and social capacity. One or two paid individuals only stretch so far. Collaboration is key to sustainability.

Include Older Adults in Every Step

Fundamental to this work is the purposeful and systematic inclusion of older adults in all stages of age-friendly community development. Age-friendly communities that demonstrate a return on investment through their ability to engage hard-to-reach populations will fare well with sustainability efforts. Meaningful engagement by older residents is no small feat, and one that many community leaders are beginning to recognize as beneficial for their own work and political futures. Support from local governments for age-friendly efforts can be seen in various U.S. cities, including Washington, DC, Boston, New York City and Columbus, Ohio, where mayors and city councilmembers have demonstrated their commitment through financial investment. In California, the Governor recently revised the state budget to include funds to create an age-friendly state.

‘Collaboration is key to sustainability.’

Age-friendly communities solve problems through targeted universalism. Targeted universalism, according to the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley, means setting universal goals for all and implementing targeted approaches with special populations to meet those goals. Transportation work by age-friendly communities provides one example of this approach, where the universal goal is for residents to have safe, affordable and accessible transportation to get to where they want and need to go, how and when they want to get there.

Targeted interventions to support including older people and individuals with disabilities helps meet this goal, ultimately benefiting all residents. Age-friendly communities are addressing transportation challenges by integrating the ideas of hard-to-reach residents into existing community projects, like test-riding autonomous vehicles and developing mobility services.

The network of Age-Friendly communities continues to evolve, much like the grassroots approach of the work itself. There is variability across different communities, with some having more capacity and resources than others. However, it is the spirit of contributing to the greater good and leveraging shared wisdom among age-friendly community leaders through sharing strategies, plans and toolkits that will ultimately determine if the goal of a more age-friendly world can be reached. The importance of disseminating successes through formal mentoring, education and research is now recognized and occurring via state-wide coalitions and through AARP’s new online information portal.

What does it take to sustain an age-friendly community? Commitment, capacity, collaboration, resident involvement and comprehensiveness, with real financial investment by those who believe in making our social, built and service environments livable for people of all ages.

Holly Dabelko-Schoeny, PhD, is an associate professor and director of Research at the Age-Friendly Innovation Center in the College of Social Work at The Ohio State University in Columbus. Katie White, MSW, is executive director of the Age-Friendly Innovation Center.