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Creating Age-Friendly Communities

Aging is a life-long process that we should embrace and enjoy, not shy away from. However, this can be difficult to do when we live in cities which are designed in a way that tends to exclude the elderly population from being active, social, and properly included in society.

Because this is such a widespread issue, the term “age-friendly” has been developed in order to describe cities and communities that are inclusive of all ages. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an age friendly city includes policies, services, and structures related to the physical and social environment that support and enable elderly populations to age actively.

“The WHO defines active aging as being able to: live in security, enjoy good health, and continue to participate fully in society.”

This is achieved by making sure that public settings and services are accessible for varying levels of ability. It is no secret that urban areas are often designed with young and mobile populations in mind. However, it is extremely important to make our cities inclusive and adaptive to people of all ages, as everyone will benefit in the long run. We are all constantly aging, and one day you might find your city to be difficult to traverse and extremely isolating. Therefore, it is in everyone’s best interest to design cities that don’t exclude any age group from living meaningful and healthy lives.

Aging urban populations

It is also important to note that global populations are increasingly made up of older people. It is estimated that by 2050, approximately 22% of the global population will be made up of people aged 60 and over. This number is twice as high as it was in 2006. Additionally, the proportion of elderly people living in cities is increasing as well, especially in developing countries where the share of older people in urban communities is expected to multiply 16 times from 56 million in 1998 to over 908 million in 2050. These statistics show us just how important it is to take age into consideration when we design our cities.

What makes a city age-friendly?

The WHO has developed and published an age friendly guide and checklist that identifies some of the physical and social design elements that facilitate active aging and inclusivity. This publication is called “Global age-friendly cities: a guide” and can be accessed here.

One of the best features of this guide is that it used a bottom-up approach by speaking directly to older people in a wide range of countries in order to hear their concerns about their living situations. The partner cities that participated in this project come from North and South America, Africa, Eastern Mediterranean, Europe, South-east Asia, and the Western Pacific. This approach helped gain accurate insight about the struggles that elderly populations face and find ways to improve cities and make them more age-friendly.

There are 8 discussion topics included within this guide to age-friendly cities: Outdoor spaces and buildings, transportation, housing, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic participation and employment, communication and information, and community support and health services.

Another similar resource containing an age-friendly city checklist is provided by the Government of Canada. You can access it here.

What does Age-friendly living look like?

Outdoor spaces and buildings, transportation, and housing discuss issues related to the safety, quality of life, and mobility of older populations.

Some elements of an age-friendly city include:

  • Accessible green spaces. Having accessible, local, well-maintained green spaces that include good walking paths and benches are important for everyone, including older people.
  • Public seating. Many older people have trouble walking long distances without being able to stop in a shaded area for a rest. Having plenty of benches and resting stops within a city can make it more walkable for seniors.
  • Age-friendly pavements. Being able to walk around in urban areas is highly dependent on the quality of sidewalks. Narrow, uneven, cracked or icy sidewalks limit the ability for elderly people to get around safely. Wide, smooth, and well-cleared sidewalks are ideal.

  • Aids such as wheelchair ramps and railings help make cities less daunting in terms of mobility.
  • Affordability of public transit. Free or subsidized public transportation is a great way to help older people have a reliable way of getting around the city.
  • Priority seating on public transportation. Adequate priority seating should be provided for older people who may rely on public transportation.
  • Housing maintenance. Affordable housing maintenance should be provided for older people, both in private and public housing.
  • Ageing in place. Housing for the elderly should be located near services and facilities, allowing people to age in their own communities and homes more easily.

Social participation, respect, social inclusion, civic participation and employment reflect different aspects of the social and cultural environment that affects both the mental wellbeing and ability to effectively participate in social life for older adults. Some of these elements include:

  • Events and activities. A wide variety of events located in accessible spaces and hosted at convenient times are important in order to facilitate participation and social inclusion of older populations.
  • Public images of ageing. Media should be inclusive and represent people of all ages in ways that avoid stereotyping.
  • Older people should be consulted by public, non-government organizations, and commercial services so that their voices are heard, and their concerns are addressed.
  • Provision of volunteer and employment options. A range of volunteering and employment options are necessary in order to provide the elderly with ways to participate that align with their interests and needs. Discrimination on the basis of age should not be permitted.

Communication, information, community support and health services involve both social environments and health and social service determinants. Some of these elements include:

  • Providing In order to avoid social exclusion, media should be accessible to older populations through a variety of mediums including easily accessible information centres.
  • Using Plain language. Print and spoken communication should use simple and familiar words that are printed in a large font or spoken clearly and slowly.
  • Service accessibility. Health and social services should be distributed throughout the city and situated in a way that makes them accessible by all means of transportation.
  • Emergency planning and care. Emergency services should take into account the needs of elderly populations in terms of preparing for and responding to emergencies.

How can I help make my community age-friendly?

See if your city or town already has a plan for becoming more age-friendly. If not, consider bringing resources to your elected officials to help to assess how age-friendly your community is and where improvements could be made.

Businesses can ensure that they are advertising to and meeting the needs of older people. Shops and services can be made accessible for those with limited mobility, hearing and eyesight.

And, we can all be a part of helping out older individuals meet their needs in our communities by assisting our neighbours with groceries, errands or shovelling the sidewalk, or simply with conversation and friendship.

It makes a difference to us all to have communities that respect and value older community members.

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