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Creating Communities for All Ages in New York

Nancy LeaMond — AARP Executive Vice President, State and National Group — addresses the New York State Association of Counties

Nancy LeaMond, AARP Executive Vice President, 2014

Nancy LeaMond's remarks before the New York State Association of Counties 2014 Fall Seminar, as prepared for delivery in Buffalo on September 22, 2014.

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I’m delighted to be with you all today, and I’m very pleased to be here in Buffalo. I want to congratulate our host city, because, personally, I think Buffalo Bills has a better ring to it than Toronto Bills. Don’t you agree?

Given that you all represent the fine counties and communities of New York, I want you to know that my roots are in the tri-state area — having grown up in your neighboring state of New Jersey.

So I feel like I’m back home. And tonight, I’m very much in a New York state of mind.

I especially want to thank Mark, Stephen and the New York State Association of Counties for inviting AARP to be a part of this important conference.

Many of you have probably heard of our organization — if nothing else, you know we send you a bunch of mail on the day you turn 50 ... and that’s true.

But you may NOT know that AARP is the largest membership organization in the country, with 38 million members — including more than 2.5 million members here in New York.

We have staff and volunteers in all 50 states, including offices in Albany and New York City — led by our AARP New York State Director Beth Finkel, who is here with us today.

And we have a basic, fundamental social mission — strengthening communities, and fighting for the issues that matter most to older Americans and their families. 

Issues like retirement and health security, transportation and housing, and livable communities.

Now, I know you have a packed couple of days. 

And much like the job of a public official, the agenda of this conference is wide-ranging — from workforce development, to emergency services, to sustainability.

I know the demands on your time are great, and the competition for your services comes from all corners — from federal and state government, from businesses, from educators and nonprofits and, most importantly, from your constituents. 

Not surprisingly, given the population that AARP represents, I have a specific plea.

And that is ... as you prepare for the challenges and opportunities ahead, as you design systems, services and supports for your constituencies, I urge you to consider your work through the lens of our aging society, and that you consider solutions that benefit people of ALL ages. 

Because, simply put — our country is getting older.

On January 1, 1946, the first of 78 million baby boomers was born and on January 1, 2011, those boomers began turning 65 — representing the most significant demographic shift in our nation’s history.

By 2030, one in four Americans will be over the age of 50 — and the 65-plus population will double to 72 million. 

And just as we’re aging in the aggregate, every state is getting older.

In 2010, one in seven people living in New York were aged 65 and over.

By 2030, nearly one in five are projected to be 65-plus — nearly 3.6 million people. That is roughly the same size as the ENTIRE population of the city of Los Angeles today!

And if the state is heading in that direction, that means the counties you all represent are already there.

New York counties will, on average, see a 55 percent increase in your 65-plus population over the next 15 years.

This is especially pronounced in some places.

For example, in Delaware County, almost two out of every five people will be over the age of 65 in 2030 — increasing by almost 90 percent.

And Seneca County will see the 65-plus population increase from around 17 percent (ranked 22nd in the state today) to 28 percent (moving up to ninth in the state).

When we talk about the aging of America, we usually focus on one generation.

Those of us old enough to remember The Brady Bunch will recall the famous sibling rivalry — and Jan Brady’s complaint that it was always about "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia."

Well, sometimes it feels like "Boomers, Boomers, Boomers." And as a boomer, I have license to say that.

But the truth is, when the boomers are long gone, we will still be an older society.

Yes, there are a lot of boomers ... but there are even more millenials — 82 million. 

And though my two millenial sons cannot fathom it right now, they too will be old one day.

There will even be a day — January 1, 2042, to be exact — when the boomers and millennials will receive Social Security at the same time. 

So this age-ed country, our age-ed states and our age-ed counties are here to stay.

And these demographic shifts will have profound implications for every corner of our nation.

All counties and municipalities will be challenged with responding to the wants and needs of an age-diverse constituency.

While those needs may vary, there are things that ALL of us look for in a community, regardless of our age. 

  • We want to live in places that are safe and affordable
  • We want to be connected to family and friends
  • We want to get around easily
  • We want to be part of a community and economy that enables opportunity

AARP has been studying aging communities for years, and we know that places are in varying stages when it comes to preparing for the changing demography.

AARP New York recently conducted a survey of 50-plus voters, and we issued our findings in a report called the “State of the 50+.”

We found that New York’s older voters are feeling economically insecure — because of rising housing costs, and because they don’t have the resources they’ll need for the future.

In fact, more than a quarter of New York State 50-plus voters — who are currently working — aren’t confident they will ever be able to retire.

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons sums it up. A man says to his wife: "If we take a late retirement and an early death, we’ll just squeak by."

But the most startling finding is that — among those who are confident they will be able to retire — six in 10 report that they are considering leaving the state because they’re worried about utility costs, about property taxes, about holding onto their jobs in the face of age discrimination, about being able to get around their community as they age.

If even a small fraction of those folks leave, the communities where they currently live risk losing a major economic force that will be extremely difficult to replace.

AARP has been collecting data on the "longevity economy" in New York — that is, the sum of all economic activity supported by the consumer spending of households headed by someone aged 50 or older.  

And we’ve seen that New Yorkers over the age of 50 contribute to the economy in a positive, outsize proportion to their share of the population.

Despite the fact that the 50-plus only accounted for 34 percent of the population in 2013, they represent 46 percent of New York’s GDP — supporting 6.1 million jobs.

So there will be an enormous cost to communities that don’t figure out new ways to hold on to their aging residents.

That’s the bad news. But the good news is — we’ve seen a lot of progress, and there is a proven path for success.

Two years ago, we launched a partnership with the World Health Organization, when we became the U.S. affiliate for the Network of Age-Friendly Communities.

We work with local leaders across the country who are committed to making their communities great places for all ages.

We now have 35 communities in the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities, representing more than 23 million people.

I want to give a shout-out to New York for being ahead of the curve, because there are more age-friendly places in your state than anywhere else in the country — 11 communities, including:

  • New York City
  • Westchester County
  • Suffolk County
  • Onondaga County
  • Chemung County
  • The City of Syracuse
  • Brookhaven Town
  • The Village of Great Neck Plaza
  • The Town of Elmira
  • The City of Elmira
  • The Town of Big Flats

I know there are representatives here today from some of these communities, and I'm delighted to announce that our host site, Erie County, formally joined the AARP network today!

To commemorate this, I'd like to invite [Erie County Executive] Mark Poloncarz up to the stage to accept this certificate.

While they are all taking different approaches, each community is following the same process — assessing their local needs, developing an action plan, and implementing solutions.

For example, Westchester passed a law to require that 50 percent of all of their affordable housing stock be accessible — so that lower income older adults can age in place, rather than moving to costly nursing homes.

They also created a volunteer caregiver coaching program, to help caregivers who need help.

As another example, Suffolk County passed Complete Streets legislation — to make streets safer for pedestrians of all ages — and they approved a budget appropriation for Complete Streets projects. 

And we are seeing that kind of innovation happen in communities across the country.

The city of Wichita, Kansas, turned an abandoned lot into a grandparents park — so that grandparents can stay healthy and fit while their grandkids play beside them.

In Boston, the mayor developed a mobile app called StreetBump — so that residents and citizen activists could identify potholes and unsafe crosswalks.

And San Antonio created a Greenway Trail System for biking and hiking, to improve residents health and well-being.

The kinds of activity and legislation we’ve seen run the gamut. 

I know you are all bottom-line oriented, and I assure you that some of these policies do not cost one dime to the county or the state.

And here’s the best news of all — it’ll go along way with your constituents.

Indeed, in our survey, a majority of folks are more likely to stay in the state, and in their community, if they see improvements in the areas of health, housing, transportation and jobs.

For those of you who are thinking about joining the network, I hope you give us serious consideration.

I know most of you here today are well aware of your aging constituency, and I know that many of you are already working on solutions to address it.

But I also know that in the busy corridors of city hall, it can be challenging to shine a spotlight on any given matter.

When we talk to the folks who have signed up for the network, overwhelmingly they tell us that by formally joining our program, they’ve been able to bring greater attention to these critical issues.

In addition to giving you access to information, resources and support, we’ll connect you with other communities — in New York, and across the country — that are grappling with similar challenges and opportunities.

I encourage you all to check out our age-friendly toolkit at aarp.org/livable, where you can find more information.

For some of us here today, the dramatic demographic shift is already part of our everyday thought and planning — and has been for some time.

For others, it may have, so far, played only a peripheral role in your responsibilities and work.

Regardless, no matter where you sit and what you do, these issues will increasingly become front and center.

I firmly believe that — when future historians look back on the first half of the 21st century — they will judge today’s leaders on how we responded to the challenges, and seized the advantages, of our aging country ... for the benefit of today's generations, and for generations to come.

YOU all are on the front lines. 

As the face and the arms AND the brains of government at the local level, your work lives at the intersection of public service and real people.

And we’re counting on you to lead the way.

Thank you all so much for your leadership, and thanks for everything you do for the citizens of this fine state.

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