The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2035, for the first time in American history, the 65-and-older population will outnumber people 18 and younger.
“So what?” you may say. “How does that affect me?” Well, as we grow older, it becomes increasingly important to consider how “age-friendly” cities and states are across America. The AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities does just that by encouraging local governments to prepare for the rapidly aging population by upping their focus on issues and amenities that mean the most to the well-being of older residents. And that entails asking the following questions:
1. Is public transportation easily accessible?
2. Are there parks and walking paths for exercise?
3. How easy is it to make and maintain friendships?
4. Is medical care convenient?
5. Is there affordable housing?
6. What kind of health and community support is available?
7. Are there employment opportunities for older peeps?
You probably didn’t ask yourself these questions when you found your current home. You thought more about good schools, the right size house and proximity to work. Historically, attracting middle-class, middle-aged families with kids has been a big priority for state and local governments. But given the upcoming demographic shift, states risk losing residents who can’t afford, or no longer want to live in, their big empty nests. The taxes are too high. They can’t get around without a car or there aren’t enough jobs for older workers. So they suffer. Or they leave.
A recent AARP study found that more than 76 percent of Americans 50 and older would like to keep living in their current homes or in a different one in the same community as long as possible — but less than half can afford to stay in either. Therefore, cities and states have had little choice but to become more “age-friendly.” So far, 332 communities nationwide and three states — Colorado, New York and Massachusetts — have become members of the AARP Network.
Colorado, for example, is cracking down on age discrimination and considering giving tax benefits to employers that hire older workers. New York committed to investing $125 million in affordable housing for low-income and older adults. And Massachusetts established a Governor's Council to Address Aging, which works to promote healthy aging, after researching the needs of older residents by conducting listening sessions across the state.
But in many places, lawmakers and local grassroots organizations are making big and small changes in nearly every facet of senior life — transportation, access to technology, business and tax incentives, appropriate housing (a big issue), access to health care, cost of living and hiring practices. It’s a complicated process that requires infrastructure changes as well as researched, thought-out implementation.
By partnering with the AARP Livable Communities initiative, governments get assistance when it comes to educating and inspiring “elected officials, local leaders, planners and citizen activists on how to identify their community's specific needs and then to create and implement the programs, policies and projects that will help meet those needs.”
Becoming an Age-Friendly State is “an aspiration and an intention to resolve the challenges facing an aging population,” says Danielle Arigoni, director of AARP Livable Communities. “It’s not a certification. By joining the network, the state embarks on a five-year process to make their communities more age-friendly, and we guide them through the process.”
AARP Livable Communities lays the groundwork for the necessary changes by making planning tools, resources and statistics available to community leaders and local groups.
“Our day-to-day lives are a compilation of a thousand decisions that have been made by communities designed to respond to one age bracket — middle-aged families with kids,” Arigoni says. “We’re changing as a country, as we’re no longer comprised mostly of households with children, but we are habitually making decisions as if that group is still the primary target.”
Everyone benefits when states and cities work harder to service their older population. “A park is more attractive to young families if it’s safer for older adults,” she says. “And it’s more appealing to older adults if they see families there.”
As you plan ahead, consider one of these age-friendly communities or, even better, learn what you can do to improve yours.