When Denise Smith, now 63, was raising her family in Smithtown in the 1980s, she had one hard-and-fast rule. "I told my children to never, ever cross Main Street," she said. "It was just too dangerous."
That hasn't changed.
See also: 5 things that make your town walkable.
Since November 2009, three pedestrians have been struck and killed on the major thoroughfare — also labeled State Routes 25/25A — causing the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to look for ways to reduce traffic speeds.
This spring the DOT repainted the lane markings and eliminated one lane in the westbound direction.
"But that's not enough," said Smith, a retired human resources executive. "Residents support additional changes like roundabouts to slow the traffic. But it's a state road, so the state makes the decision."
Motivated by concern over the issue and aware that AARP hired a transportation consultant to suggest alternative solutions, Smith became an AARP volunteer last summer and now serves as the Smithtown AARP coordinator.
She's one of 115 Suffolk County residents who signed up last year in a volunteer recruiting blitz as part of an effort to help AARP New York nudge the county's six western towns (Babylon, Islip, Huntington, Smithtown, Riverhead and Brookhaven) to become places where it's easier for aging people to remain in their homes. Safe streets help make that possible.
About 14 percent of the county's 1.49 million residents are 65 or older. A 2011 study (PDF) by the AARP Public Policy Institute and the National Conference of State Legislatures found that 90 percent of people over 65 want to stay in their homes as long as possible.
"For that to happen, for there to be what we call a 'livable community,' the infrastructure has to be in place," said William I. Stoner, AARP New York associate state director for livable communities.
"At the very least that means safe streets, easy access to public transportation, housing with features that accommodate the physical needs of aging residents, and availability of services," he said.
Livable communities won't happen overnight, but steps taken locally can yield results. For example, in 2008, AARP worked to help pass Suffolk County legislation requiring that housing built with public funds have "universal design" features such as an entry ramp, wider doorways, and a bedroom and an accessible half-bath on the ground floor.
AARP New York has teamed with Vision Long Island, an organization dedicated to pedestrian-friendly, affordable, mixed-use housing, to foster livable communities.
Help with food aid
"Now we're working with Suffolk County and the towns in it to make sure older people have access to the services they need," including nutrition programs, Stoner said.
Last year, AARP New York mailed letters to 10,000 member households in Suffolk County that were income-eligible for food stamps but not enrolled and encouraged them to call a special phone line at the state office. Stoner said the line was inundated with calls.
Every day for about six months, six to eight volunteers directed callers to a community enrollment site or — in a desperate situation — to the nearest food bank.
AARP New York is recruiting additional volunteers in Suffolk County to work with the six town coordinators.
"The goal is to have a network of volunteers on issues like housing, mobility and availability of services — things that affect people right out of their front doors," Stoner said.
He's hoping others will join Smith in her campaign to make her community a place she can live in comfortably for many years.
For more information or to volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-866-227-7442 toll-free.
Cathie Gandel is a freelance writer who lives in Suffolk County, N.Y.
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