6 Things a Community That Prioritizes Aging Residents Always Does

published Sep 20, 2022
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6 things a Community that prioritizes aging residents always does
Credit: Photo: Shutterstock; Design: Apartment Therapy

Tracey Savell Reavis never considered aging in place when she moved to Alexandria, Virginia, two years ago. 

Reavis, 57, owns a sports communication consulting firm. A native New Yorker, Reavis moves as easily about her life in Alexandria as she did thirty years ago when she was 20-something and commuting from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Being able to travel, work, socialize and thrive at different stages of one’s life is the benefit of living in cities well-designed for aging in place. For Reavis, discovering Alexandria’s accessible lifestyle was a happy accident.

Sometimes used interchangeably with universal design, aging in place goes beyond retrofitting a bathroom with grab bars. Communities — rather than individual homes — designed for aging in place address the needs of their citizens from cradle to cane. 

“Cities and communities play a critical role in not only how long people live, but in their quality of life,” says Jennifer Tripken, associate director for the Center of Healthy Aging at the National Council on Aging. Here, find six practices found among communities well-designed for aging in place.

Offer Accessible and Affordable Transportation

Reavis has a driver’s license but has never owned a car, yet she attends sporting events and parties, and frequents trendy restaurants. 

“As a single woman who doesn’t drive, what I always looked for was a community that is walkable and has a reliable public transportation system,” Reavis says. “Here [in Alexandria] I can walk almost anywhere — to grocery stores, the mall, gym, to parks and the waterfront. And if I can’t walk there, I can take public transportation.”

Reavis has lived in Barcelona, Spain, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Among those cities, she considered LA the most car-centric and toughest to get around. 

“From a pedestrian’s point of view, the physical environment may be the easiest way to see how aging-friendly a community is,” Tripken says. 

Alexandria offers free or discounted transportation. A free trolley runs the length of King Street, the town’s business district. Alexandria’s Senior Services also provides curb-to-curb car service for seniors who find it difficult or impossible to take public transportation. 

“I think cities should have the mindset of a pedestrian when planning,” Reavis says. “Are bus stops located in well-lit areas? Are there benches at the bus stops? It feels like much is set up through the lens of drivers.”

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Encourage Social and Civic Engagement

AARP maintains a Livability Index that scores communities on a scale from 0 to 100. Those with more livability-friendly practices earn above a 50, and those facing obstacles to livability score lower. The Livability Index considers good engagement as fostering social interaction, encouraging civic action, and ensuring online and in-person connectivity. Age-friendly communities have museums, libraries, festivals, fitness, nutrition, and educational programs. 

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, Reavis worked from home instead of commuting into DC. That’s when she discovered Alexandria’s age-friendly offerings.

“I realized I didn’t have to go into the city — everything is here,” she says. “That to me is an indication that the city is working to make it an aging-in-place community.”

Age-friendly cities offer residents a stake in the community. “They are also places where people feel they belong and have opportunities to participate in community activities that bring meaning and joy to their life,” Tripken says. 

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Strengthen Municipal and Non-Profit Partnerships

San Jose, California, is located in Silicon Valley, a region associated with young and wealthy tech professionals. However, Silicon Valley is also considered one of the most age-friendly places in the world. 

That’s not by accident. San Jose and Santa Clara County implemented strategic plans aimed at creating age-friendly communities based on recommendations from the World Health Organization, which defines age-friendly communities as “environments — in the home and community — that are free from physical and social barriers and supported by policies, systems, services, products, and technologies.” 

During the pandemic, city officials offered meals to go at its closed senior centers instead of in-person dining. Concerned that less tech-savvy seniors might miss out, the city distributed cheat sheets with the meals that provided step-by-step instructions for accessing the city’s online hub.

Once connected, city employees and volunteers could assist seniors via Zoom. “Providing access was not enough,” says Jeremy Shoffner, recreation superintendent for the city of San Jose. “Getting the older population acclimated and comfortable with seeking information online helped.” 

The online platform was so popular that the city kept it after stay-at-home orders ended. 

San Jose also hosts Senior Safari, an event held at the Happy Hollow Park & Zoo. Visitors age 50 and older enjoy the zoo, a 10,000-step fitness challenge, and healthy breakfast options. In addition, health organizations, financial institutions, and non-profits provide information about services available to seniors. 

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Foster Intergenerational Relationships

The best aging-in-place communities promote interaction between people of all ages. The elderly are respected as resources. In San Jose, seniors are invited to read to little kids and mentor young adults.

In Newark, Delaware, an organization called Lori’s Hands connects seniors who live at home and have chronic illnesses with college students. The students provide non-medical assistance, such as grocery shopping, light housework, and meal preparation. In return, seniors offer students life lessons about living with a chronic illness. Student recruits take service-learning courses and can earn community service hours, internships, or pre-med contact hours. 

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Provide Affordable Housing 

Many of the most livable cities have the highest housing costs. Although federal assistance is available, providing affordable age-friendly housing requires a collaborative effort between government agencies, non-profits, businesses, and citizens.

In San Jose, PATH, a homeless services and housing development agency, operates PATH Ventures, which uses public and private funding to build high-quality, affordable homes. These developments aren’t run-down buildings that people associate with public housing. Instead, the apartment buildings look like luxury rentals, where Tik Toking tech-savvy Gen Zers might live. 

On the other hand, Nesterly is a Boston-based home-sharing agency that matches young adults with older homeowners with a spare room. The company’s mission is to make housing more affordable by helping people “create a mutually beneficial connection across generations, cultures, and lived experiences.”

This kind of connection is why Reavis likes to live in cities like Alexandria, which has several colleges nearby. “I’m always looking for roommates so I won’t be alone,” Reavis says. “It is also a chance for me to live with different age groups, people of different nationalities. And I think co-living is good for communities.”

She has no desire to own a home. Instead, she prefers apartment living because “Maintenance is taken care of… buildings have fitness centers, a pool, a community room and activities, making it easier to manage as you age,” she says. 

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Embrace Inclusivity and Diversity

 “Cities and communities that are getting it right develop and design spaces with the needs of diverse populations in mind,” Tripken says. “This needs to include having diverse people from all ages participate in the development process.” 

Alexandria has demographics similar to Manhattan. “It’s like going on a tour of the world, where you really do see so many nationalities in any given day,” Reavis says. “Local shops, restaurants and events reflect that as well, which presents other opportunities to experience different cultures.”

Inclusivity is one reason cities that top the AARP Livability Index also land on other best places to live lists. A recent RentCafe survey found that Generation Z or Zoomers prefer Alexandria over other neighborhoods in suburban Washington, D.C. The D.C. metro area is among BET’s best places to live for African Americans. San Jose, meanwhile, is ranked number five on U.S. News and World Report’s Best Places to Live. 

“Aging with dignity shouldn’t be a stroke of luck, and it shouldn’t depend on your race, ethnicity, gender, or your personal financial resources,” Tripken says. “We want vibrant communities where everyone can thrive.”