Working to be a better place to grow older


July 21, 2016 11:04 AM
By Kerry Hannon / The New York Times

Martha Baron likes to play in the dirt. And for the 79-year-old resident of Washington, D.C., all that takes is a walk about a half a block from her condominium to the Newark Street Community Garden.

Three times a week during the growing season, Ms. Baron visits her two organic garden plots, where she tends to gladiolas, peonies, zinnias, carrots, tomatoes, zucchini and a lot of basil.

“It’s a wonderful place to meet others of all ages from all different walks of life with similar interests, and it gives me a purpose,” said Ms. Baron.

Such opportunities are helping make Washington an ideal place to grow older. Ten years ago, after her husband died, Ms. Baron moved to the city from Long Island to be near her grown children and grandchildren. But it was a rough adjustment. “I found it very difficult, as an older adult and a single woman not interested in dating, to make friends,” she recalled.

In the last five years, that’s changed. She joined the garden and also became a member of Cleveland & Woodley Park Village, an organization of volunteers that provides services like shopping trips and transportation to doctor appointments and plans social outings for older adults.

Like Ms. Baron, 87 percent of adults 65 and older want to stay in their own home and community as they age, according to an AARP report. By 2050, the 65 and over population is projected to reach 83.7 million, almost double the roughly 43.1 million in 2012, according to the United States Census Bureau.

Those statistics are well known across the nation as cities grapple with the needs of older adults. The nonprofit Milken Institute’s Best Cities for Successful Living report found several cities to be ahead of the curve, including smaller cities like Iowa City and Sioux Falls, S.D., and larger ones like Boston and New York.

One contributor to the successes in Washington is the growth of villages like the one Ms. Baron joined for $500 a year. Her nonprofit village has 100 members, aged 57 to 95, and 160 volunteers. It’s one of 15 villages across the district and more than 50 across the Washington metro area.

The Age-Friendly DC Initiative is part of an international effort. In 2012, it was initiated by then-Mayor Vincent Gray with encouragement from AARP-DC and local faith leaders. It was selected by the World Health Organization Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities to be part of an effort it started in 2007 to connect cities that serve an aging population.

The World Health Organization recommends a rigorous five-year process in which city leaders, businesses and government agencies focus on improving the elements that affect the quality of life of residents as they grow older.

“Qualities of livable cities for older citizens, also referred to as ‘aging in place,’ include a variety of accessible and affordable housing options in safe and walkable neighborhoods with plenty of options for getting around — walking, biking, carts, public transit, ride-sharing and shared or owned vehicles,” said Joel Makower, co-author of “The New Grand Strategy: Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security and Sustainability in the 21st Century.”

“Obviously, health care and other supportive services are essential, along with access to healthy food and other retail.”

But it goes deeper. “One often-overlooked quality is what some experts call ‘social integration’ — the existence of activities and events geared not just to older people, but to intergenerational experiences,” said Mr. Makower. “I don’t think most cities have a good understanding of what it takes to ensure that older citizens can participate in the life of a community.”

Paul Irving, chairman of the Center for the Future of Aging at the Milken Institute and distinguished scholar in residence at the Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California, agreed. “Age is typically not on the agenda for city and county executives,” he said. “This is a huge issue for cities. What kinds of homes do we need, what kinds of transportation/transit, what kinds of economic development, health system? It’s building cities for generations to come, not just boomers.”

For pilot cities like Washington, the World Health Organization identified several aspects of urban communities that influence the health and quality of life of older people living there. They include outdoor spaces, transportation, affordable housing, the opportunity for social and civic participation, communication, community support and health services. After listening to residents, the district added aspects of its own, including elder abuse and fraud and emergency preparedness. Within those areas were categories like safety, community amenities and services.

The safety category, for example, includes the number of police officers in an area and whether there are broken sidewalks, unoccupied storefronts and public restrooms. Community amenities include grocery stores, banks, senior centers and parks. The services category focuses on places like hospitals, drugstores and libraries.

“These are strategies that are not only beneficial for our older residents, but for us all — and they are absolutely achievable,” the current mayor, Muriel Bowser, wrote in a 2015 report on Washington’s initiative.

As part of the Age-Friendly Cities program, Washington has worked to increase access to and usage of parks, open spaces and public buildings, and has increased the number of parks and public spaces that are equipped with seating, drinking fountains and restrooms.

There has also been a focus on new park programs aimed at residents 50 and older, such as neighborhood walks, tai chi in the park and more community gardens.

One effort is the East Capitol Urban Farm, a planned transformation of a vacant three-acre plot in Ward 7 into a new urban farm. Partners include the University of the District of Columbia and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

Another program, Safe at Home, provides grants of up to $10,000 to residents to make small home modifications, such as adding an elevator with a chair to a staircase or modifying a bathroom with a grab bar.

Transportation is also crucial and it’s not just public transportation, said Ruth Finkelstein, associate director of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center, who previously directed the Age-Friendly New York City Initiative. “Walking is transportation, and the ability to walk safely in your neighborhood is essential. It is a wonderful physical activity, and it is also good from a cognitive health point of view and from a social engagement point of view.”

“You also need safe and plentiful public space, and businesses that are what we call third places — where you habitually go and feel comfortable, such as the coffee shop, a community center, the Y or the gym — need to be in place and vibrant,” said Ms. Finkelstein.

Another element of the Age-Friendly DC plan is a wider range of affordable housing options for older residents.

Genesis, a Generations of Hope residence, for example, is a 27-unit affordable community that brings together residents 60 and older with young families and single mothers transitioning from the district’s foster care system. Older residents commit to sharing their skills and wisdom with younger families. All adult residents are required to complete service hours each quarter to support the community.

In the Mount Vernon Triangle section of the city, plans call for a 12-story affordable-housing development that will be the first of its kind in the city — and one of only a handful in the nation. It will offer subsidized housing and services for grandparents raising grandchildren. Fifty of the 223 apartments for low-income residents will be set aside for such “grandfamilies.”

“I admire what they are doing in Washington, D.C.,” said Ms. Finkelstein. “It’s quite elegantly done. This is not a one-generation issue, but a quintessentially intergenerational issue.”

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