American Society on Aging National Conference: A Move Toward Age Friendly Environments

Earlier this month, I attended the American Society on Aging national conference in San Diego. Aside from providing a much needed break from this year’s Midwest winter weather, it offered opportunities to meet many the industry’s movers and shakers and learn the latest trends across just about any topic in the field of aging that one could imagine. Since I am a member of the World Health Organization Age Friendly Cities initiative task force where I live, I was particularly interested in sessions on how other communities are effectively creating age-friendly city environments.

Traditionally older adults who were unable to live independently had little choice except to move into institutions—continuing care retirement communities, assisted living residences and nursing homes, if family members were not available to help. And often, losing the ability to drive is the precipitating event in these decisions, even when the person is able to function well in all other ways. However, the data suggests that upcoming generations may not be so willing to move as previous generations have been. The vast majority of boomers, for instance, want to stay in their own homes.

In response to a changing landscape, various Age Friendly City initiatives are under way and making great strides, I learned. Rather than expecting older adults (or disabled residents, for that matter) to move to specialized institutions to accommodate their needs, new efforts seek to change environments to be more ‘age friendly’ and allow people to remain in their homes for as long as possible. This is a win-win outcome for everyone: older adults prefer to remain in their own homes—and it is less expensive to society if they do.

The World Health Organization has identified specific domains to assess and evaluate for age friendliness. An age friendly community offers good, assessable, affordable transportation, safe, well-lit, walkable streets, public buildings and outdoor areas, attractive and affordable and assessable housing. It provides opportunities for residents to participate in community activities, find jobs and volunteer, supports and promotes inclusive institutions that respect all citizens, communicates effectively with residents and contains good health and community services.

A further insight that comes from these efforts is that the changes that make a city or town more ‘age friendly’ also make it all age friendly. Think of it—aren’t the good systems, structures, opportunities, services and practices that make a city age friendly good for everyone?

I’ll be following this post with several others spurred by the conference; stay tuned!

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