Between 2000 and 2050, the proportion of the world's population over 60 years will double from about 11 percent to 22 percent, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). During that period, WHO expects the number of people aged 60 years and over to swell from 605 million to 2 billion.
How well those seniors will live depends greatly on the environment both inside their houses and outside. By incorporating universal design principles, people can prepare their houses for aging in place. But if the larger community doesn’t provide an environment and services that are conducive to ageing in place, seniors’ quality of life can be diminished.
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Age-Friendly Cities Initiative has established comprehensive guidelines to help cities assess their age friendliness and make certain that they’re providing an environment where seniors can live a full, engaging, and high-quality life.
WHO’s program addresses eight categories:
Outdoor Spaces and Buildings
Community and Health Services
Civic Participation and Employment
Communication and Information
Respect or Social Inclusion
Across the globe, cities – including New York City, Udine, Italy, Ponce, Puerto Rico, Ponce, and Himeji, Japan -- have embraced WHO’s concepts and have developed programs to ensure that their cities are ready for an ageing population.
They’re working to eliminate barriers--whether those are related to housing, medical services, infrastructure, or social activities--to ageing in place.
Some efforts are broadly supported and funded and managed by cities and provinces and others start with small grassroots efforts through an aging-related community group, for instance.
Across Canada, cities and towns have established age-friendly initiatives. Among them are Alberton, P.E.I., Gimli, Man., Halifax, N.S., Lumby, B.C., and Sherbrooke, Que.
Staying ahead of the curve
The city of London, Ontario, for one, has developed a comprehensive program that started in 2010, when it applied for and was accepted to WHO’s Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities. It was the first Canadian city to do so.
“We learned that older adult demographic for London is growing at a higher rate than any other demographic. We’re also a top destination point for retirees in North America,” comments Paul D’Hollander, London’s Manager of Area Services.
To service that population and keep them coming and staying, the city of London saw that it needed to deliver a more livable, walkable, senior-friendly community.
Community engagement, bottom-up strategy
In developing its strategy, London took a bottom-up approach. So rather than the government identifying the needs and dictating projects, the city turned to residents to assess seniors’ experiences, uncover age-friendly features they’d like to see, and where the environment was falling short. “It was important for us to engage the community in building our plan,” comments D’Hollander.
Based on those interviews and focus groups, the city, in 2013, developed a three-year action plan.
It included addressing strategies from all eight of WHO’s categories, and the city established working groups devoted to identifying and planning projects in each category.
Some goals of the groups include:
Improving pedestrian safety at crossings by installing countdowns and longer crossing times in areas where older adults live or access services.
Boosting affordability of public transit.
Investigating new housing opportunities, such as co-housing or shared housing.
Delivering better home support, especially for isolated seniors. That could entail check-in services and seniors-helping-seniors initiatives.
Making businesses, such as restaurants and retailers, friendlier to seniors.
Success on a shoestring budget
Because of budget constraints, London started with small initiatives.
One recent project, for example, entailed improving the age friendliness of parks by increasing number of washroomsopen all year and increasing the number of benches in park and along paths.
The park accessibility project is an example of a no- or low-cost project that improves lives without busting budgets.
Moreover, participants on task forces are encouraged to tap their professional networks to find donation of goods, services, and advice. In light of budget constraints, D’Hollander sees such donations as essential in moving the plans ahead. Moreover, it benefits everyone who lives, works, and has a business in the city, he points out. “It’s all about making London a better place,” he comments.
Ensuring economic vibrancy
Later on, D’Hollander expects to tackle some big-ticket items, such as an improved transit system that features accessible buses and more stops. He thinks every Canadian city would benefit from examining how to become more age-friendly and says, “To stay economically vibrant, every province needs to pay heed to this phenomenon of ageing.”
“Also, Canada has long been a country of social programs, equality and fairness and has had a focus on inclusiveness. So it’s not a jump to move the bar on helping this ageing demographic,” he comments.
D’Hollander envisions a future for London that one day doesn’t entail an age-friendly strategy at all. “My hope is that at some point all of this isn’t a plan but that it’s just part of regular business and that seniors’ needs are fully integrated in London life.”
If you’re interested in making your hometown more age friendly, you don’t need to start from scratch, nor do you need to create a comprehensive plan that addresses all eight WHO categories.
“Maybe just pick the top two categories that are important to your community and something that works for your residents and budgets,” suggests D’Hollander.
It doesn’t necessarily require government leadership either. Academic, health and community groups all can collaborate to launch a program.
There are vast resources, networks, and guides to help you get a program off the ground.