This month, Albany County announced a new program, the Campus for Creative Aging, which the county executive, Daniel McCoy, described as “a senior center without walls.”
Five years ago, McCoy said, Albany County was chosen by the United Nations’ World Health Organization to participate in the Age Friendly initiative. We had never heard of this and looked up and read through an 80-page guide produced by the World Health Organization.
We learned that the world, just like Albany County, is rapidly aging. The number of people aged 60 and over as a proportion of the global population will double from 11 percent in 2006 to 22 percent by 2050. By then, less than 30 years from now, there will be more older people than children (aged 0 to 14 years) in the population for the first time in human history.
This means it is important for each of our communities to pay attention to how old people live. The WHO study looked closely at 33 cities in countries around the world — including New York City and Portland, Oregon in the United States — and listened to seniors as well as caregivers in those cities to develop checklists that communities can use to gauge their success in providing well for their elderly.
Although the guide focuses on cities, it repeatedly points out that non-urban communities must also become more age friendly. “In many countries, older people constitute a high percentage of the population in rural and remote areas as a consequence of the emigration of younger people,” the guide says.
We urge the towns we cover to look at the checklists the World Health Organization has provided to see where they are succeeding and, more importantly, how they can improve.
The eight areas are:
— Outdoor spaces and buildings, which have a major impact on the mobility, independence, and quality of life of seniors and affect their ability to age in place. Green spaces are important as are benches to rest on, smooth pavement, safe crossings, and age-friendly buildings;
— Transportation, which must be safe, available, and affordable as it determines seniors’ social and civic participation and access to community and health services;
— Housing, which allows seniors to age comfortably and safely within the community, is universally valued. It must be affordable, barrier-free, and easily maintained with access to services and to community or family functions;
— Social participation, which allows seniors to continue to exercise their competence, to enjoy respect and esteem, and to maintain or establish supportive and caring relationships. Varied activities that foster integration within the community and with other age groups and cultures are best;
— Respect and social inclusion; the guide says that changing behavioral norms along with lack of contact between generations and widespread ignorance about aging can cause disrespectful behavior toward seniors and isolation. In societies that value youth and change, seniors in developed countries can be perceived as “demanding and a drain on public resources.” Sometimes, poverty excludes seniors from society. The guide recommends education on ageism beginning in primary school;
— Civic participation and employment; the guide says seniors often feel physical barriers as well as cultural stigmatization keep them from participating and that some volunteer jobs have become too professionalized with rigid schedules. Training for post-retirement opportunities is advised as is transportation to work;
— Communication and information; staying connected through timely information is essential to active aging and local media are seen as essential. Interpersonal communication is very important and the closing of local venues like banks and post offices is detrimental. “Rapidly evolving information and communication technologies are both welcomed as useful tools and criticized as instruments of social exclusion,” the guide says; and
— Community support and health services; well-located, easily accessible health services are fundamentally important and there is a consistent need for a wide range of home support and care services.
The guide stresses that older people are not a homogenous group and that individual diversity increases with age. The rate of a person’s decline is largely determined by factors related to lifestyle as well as external social, environmental, and economic factors.
“The speed of decline can be influenced and may be reversible at any age through individual and public policy measures, such as promoting an age-friendly environment,” the guide says.
The guide also makes the point that society as a whole benefits when streets, buildings, and transportation are barrier-free. People with disabilities, regardless of age, become more mobile, and secure neighborhoods allow children as well as old people to venture out for social activities. The whole community benefits from old people doing volunteer or paid work and the local economy profits from the patronage of older adult consumers.
“The operative word in age-friendly social and physical urban settings is enablement,” the guide says.
Following the directives in the WHO guide can enhance all of our communities. For example, we recently interviewed the four candidates in the hotly contested Democratic primary for Guilderland Town Board. All four of them individually thought an updated comprehensive plan for Guilderland is needed.
Why not make part of that planning process reaching out to include Guilderland’s elderly? Certainly, many apartment complexes for seniors have been proposed or built in town in the last few years. But, at the same time, our newspaper has received letters from seniors stating they have no desire to move to a high-rise apartment complex but would favor downsizing into a smaller home that is part of a community.
Also much of the senior housing proposed or offered is expensive. Hence, we were pleased to see that Pine Bush Senior Living has proposed changing its plans to now include affordable housing units.
We have long commended and given much space on the pages of our newspaper to the Community Caregivers, which harnesses the talents and energy of volunteers to help the elderly age in place, to stay in their own homes. Certainly, municipalities could add to these services.
In the rural Helderberg Hilltowns, Berne Councilwoman Bonnie Conklin ran in part on a platform of bringing a senior facility to the Hilltowns. Elderly residents who have had to move off the Hill for the care they need have had to give up the community that had sustained them.
“Smaller communities where people have lived for a long time and know each other, are seen to be friendlier and more inclusive,” the WHO guide says. This is a perfect description of the Hilltowns.
We would hope that the Hilltowns, working together through the WHO checklist, might be able to finally realize a proposal for a senior housing facility that was first proposed more than a decade ago.
As we worked our own way through the checklists this week, we saw many good things the communities we cover have provided for seniors. We laud towns that provide transportation to seniors for both recreation and medical appointments.
We commend Albany County not just for the current initiative, the Campus for Creative Aging that brought us to the WHO Age-Friendly Guide in the first place, but also for its outreach to seniors throughout the pandemic. The county has offered to come to seniors’ home to administer vaccinations and, realizing that many felt stymied by the online sign-up for vaccination, worked out a program with United Way where people could get help navigating the system.
The WHO guide stresses that an age-friendly community can only result from an integrated approach centered on how older people live.
That means actions across different areas have to be coordinated. Housing, for example, must be considered in connection with outdoor spaces. Transportation and infrastructure must be linked to civic and economic participation as well as health services.
Finally, the guide stresses, “Because knowledge is key to empowerment, information about all aspects of city living must be accessible to everyone at all times.”
We at The Enterprise pledge to continue to do our part to inform our readers of the various aspects — from housing to social activities — that go into making a vibrant community not just for seniors but for all of us.
After all, unlike special-interest groups into which a person is born, every one of us, if we live long enough, will eventually be old. So it is in each person’s self-interest — as well as for the community good — to see that seniors have good lives.
The guide makes the point that, as communities become more age-friendly, they will “tap the potential that older people represent for humanity.”
We have the perfect example of that in the life of Dick Howie who died this past week at age 86. The Altamont library director describes Howie as a pillar of the community. In his old age, Howie contributed not just to the library, where he was a trustee, but to his church and to the community at large. He even stopped by our newspaper office with his wife, Ellen, to share what they had learned at a week-long Chautauqua workshop about the worth of local journalism.
The more old people are part of community life, the richer our society will be.