Denise Oliviera, 03/03/2015
Often thought of as a haven for the young and ambitious, it turns out that New York City is a global leader in providing for the needs of its older residents.
The ranking comes via the World Health Organization and was reported in a recent article on Politico, which detailed the many ways in which New York and other cities have taken seriously the task of adapting policies and infrastructure to better serve an aging population. New York City’s senior population is projected to grow by 50 percent in the next 15 years, and policy makers have taken note. Already, a slew of changes have been taken to accommodate older residents, from seniors-only pool hours to the first of dozens of “age-friendly” neighborhoods.
Back in 2007, when the World Health Organization announced its goal to develop a network of age-friendly cities, New York was among the first to jump on board. One of the key champions and designers of the NYC-based initiative was public health expert Dr. Ruth Finkelstein.
Senior Planet spoke by phone with Dr. Finkelstein, who has since made the move from the New York Academy of Medicine to the Columbia Aging Center, where she is associate director; she’s also director of the International Longevity Center (USA). Though Finkelstein no longer directly works on the “age-friendly NYC” initiative, she is a respected expert on aging and city planning, and remains passionate about making New York – and all cities – hospitable to all generations, including the aging.
What makes a city age-friendly?
There’s no formula, but we do know some things. For a community to be aging friendly, people need appropriate housing that meets their needs, they need to be a part of the governance and decision-making process of their community, and they need opportunities for staying active and engaged in the things they care about. As people age, they need to stay connected to their broader community, and they need to be able to access the services they depend on, both health and social. A city that is aging friendly also provides opportunities for people to engage in meaningful work, whether or not it’s paid work. As they age, people need to continue to feel useful and to feel that they’re making a contribution.
Does technology play a role in keeping an aging population vibrant?
People need opportunities to keep learning and to be stimulated by new experiences. And people need information about what’s going on in the world around them. Technology has been advancing rapidly and it plays a key role in this. Everything from a telephone to a computer affords a person the possibility to stay connected to the people they care about, and to gain access to the information they’re interested in. Technology allows for entertainment and stimulation. It’s a wonderful gateway and tool that people gain more and more mastery of the more they use it.
Let’s talk about New York. What challenges and opportunities does NYC’s aging population face?
When I was first involved with the initiative in 2007, we talked to lots of people to hear directly from them. We learned, first of all, that so many of the people who are aging here in New York have lived here for many, many years, and they love it. And that very love for the city is definitely a strength. Also, this is a neighborhood-based city, and people have strong, coherent and deep connections to their neighborhoods. However, this is also a challenge, because as neighborhoods change and often become unaffordable, some of those connections gets eroded, and older people can become marginalized. But New York has an amazing public transportation system going for it. Even though it’s not perfect and could be improved upon, we know that aging people use subways and buses regularly. Not to mention that New York is a walking city, which is another positive factor.
Have other cities around the world come up with age-friendly practices that we can learn from?
Some of my favorite age friendly initiatives are in Manchester, England. For example, they have a big focus on housing safety. In a particular community that was vulnerable because of an alley, gates were put in and people felt more secure. They’re also very intentional with park design and sidewalk walkability. In Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, there’s a big initiative to involve the aging population in developing safety initiatives like hiring more doormen for their buildings, as well as developing friendly banking services to meet the needs of older people. Here in the U.S., Portland, Oregon has incorporated the concept of “aging” into its city mandate, and the concerns of older people must be taken into account in all components of city planning.
How about other age groups – what role can younger people play in keeping a city age-friendly?
We need to recognize that we all lose if we segregate older people. It’s absolutely an opportunity and responsibility for all generations to make cities friendly for the aging population. For example, when it comes to disaster preparedness, of course we need plans and schemes in place. But in the end, when it comes to keeping older people safe in a crisis, it comes down to neighbors checking in on one another.
What does “aging with attitude” mean to you?
It means demanding that you can be who you are – at every age. This means not having to relinquish all your previous identities and interests in favor of a new one named “old.”
What would make your city and neighborhood easier to live in as you age? For example, do you need more bus lines? More benches? Is your neighborhood lacking age-friendly exercise opportunities? Take our poll or add your “want” in the comments section below, along with your city and/or neighborhood.