Developing an aging-friendly community is all about the details. Recognizing the needs of an older population ranges from housing to health care to even crosswalks.
As the Clark County Aging Readiness Plan, adopted in 2012, asks: “As you grow older, will Clark County be livable for you? Will you be able to continue to live independently in your home or neighborhood? What needs to change for you to be able to remain in your home and be an active, engaged community member as you age?”
Those questions are more complex than they might seem. And they are important. As noted at a recent Clark County Council meeting, by 2025 it is expected that more than 1 in 4 local residents will be 60 or older.
Of course, not all 60-year-olds (or 70- or 80-year-olds) have the same needs and challenges. But improving livability with a focus on aging residents can improve life for residents of all ages.
As the World Health Organization notes: “Health and well-being are determined not only by our genes and personal characteristics but also by the physical and social environments in which we live our lives. Environments play an important role in determining our physical and mental capacity across a person’s life course . . .”
Or as Dr. Kelly Ylitalo, who has studied the issue at Baylor University, said: “One of the most important things I learned was that healthy aging has to be approached from a life-course perspective. Changes in physical functioning are really important for the aging process and play a role in functional abilities much earlier in the life than most of the existing research suggests.”
Which brings us back to crosswalks — often an afterthought in community planning but an example of little things that can make a difference. As people age, they take longer to traverse a crosswalk; when the duration of the “walk” light is too short, they are less likely to venture out on foot and less likely to engage with their community. Ensuring enough time for safe passage also impacts parents pushing a stroller or young people who have mobility issues.
The design of outdoor spaces also impacts a community’s vitality, particularly for older residents. Studies have demonstrated that creating parks and green spaces, along with paying attention to lighting, noise and air pollution in outdoor gathering spots, can ease the aging process.
As mentioned, these are relatively minor aspects of helping a community to age gracefully. Housing, health care and transportation are the more obvious factors and are essential for allowing an aging population to remain active. They also are the impetus for Clark County revisiting its Aging Readiness Plan.
“We hope it will improve interjurisdictional coordination between the cities and county,” said Susan Ellinger, a community development planner. “The Commission on Aging has manual work plans to implement all of the strategies within the plan.”
The decade-old guide focuses on the amenities that promote a healthy community and stresses the need for “complete neighborhoods”: “A healthy community has neighborhoods with a well-rounded offering of daily goods and services that can be reached within a comfortable walking distance.” The city of Vancouver’s focus on “20-minute neighborhoods” reflects that thinking.
All of this represents changing demographics throughout the United States. Like it or not, we are getting older, and local leaders are wise to recognize that fact and adjust how our communities are designed.