Imagine you have a choice. The first would be to live in a city or town that has ample parks and bike paths, easy access (via walking or public transportation) to stores, restaurants, entertainment and doctors, and housing prices that are not out of sight. There are opportunities to volunteer or work (or do something meaningful) and stay engaged in the community. 

The second choice is to be somewhere with far fewer amenities. Not exactly a hard call! Option #1 is called “age-friendly” or “livable communities.” 

Municipalities and states are realizing that making their city or town attractive to residents and prospects is both a quality of life issue, not to mention an economic one.

Increasingly, people are not only considering where, but how, they want to live.

Municipalities and states are realizing that making their city or town attractive to residents and prospects is both a quality of life issue, not to mention an economic one. It means happier citizens and more money staying in the community. 

While the age-friendly concept was originally conceived for an older demographic, it benefits, and is meant for, all stages and ages.

For instance, wide sidewalks, generously-timed pedestrian traffic signals, as well as bus shelters with benches, are as important to a young parent with a baby stroller or toddler in tow as to their grandparent in a wheelchair or walker.

Age-friendly facts

Statistics show why livable communities have become such a hot topic and why the idea started with seniors in mind. According to United States Census Bureau: 

  • By 2030, all baby boomers will be older than 65.
  • By 2035, there will be more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 18.

Then, there’s the Population Reference Bureau report Aging in the United States:

  • The age 65+ demographic is expected to more than double to 98 million by 2060, up from today’s 46 million.
  • The 65+ group will comprise nearly 24% of the U.S. population in 2060, compared to its current 15%.

The 2018 AARP Home and Community Preferences Survey shows that 76% of respondents age 50+ want to remain in their current residence if they can. Seventy-seven percent hope to stay in their community.

In that same survey, 13% think they may move to a different home in the same community, 24% say it’ll likely be a different community, 46% never plan to leave their home, and 17% are not sure.

Defining “age-friendly” 

What makes a city, town or state age-friendly? The World Health Organization (WHO), which has a global network of age-friendly communities, has identified eight key areas:

  1. Outdoor spaces and buildings accessible and used by all ages
  2. Transportation options that could range from trains to buses to ride-sharing services 
  3. Houses that can be modified for aging in place (a den on the first floor becomes a master bedroom, better lighting to prevent falling, wider doorways) and various housing price points
  4. Social participation to mitigate loneliness.
  5. Respect for, and interaction with, other generations and people
  6. Opportunities for older adults to work or volunteer
  7. Disseminating information in different ways, not just smart phones or the internet (that an older person might not use)
  8. Access to affordable community and health services

The AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities is the U.S. affiliate of WHO and uses the same eight measures.

In 2017, New York became the first state in the country to become Age-Friendly by enrolling in AARP’s age-friendly network. Colorado and Florida have signed on, along with the U.S. Virgin Islands and 373 cities and towns nationwide.

Local leaders and residents help to identify a municipality’s needs and come up with a plan to implement them. 

Forward-thinking initiatives

Two years ago, Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts established a council to address aging in Massachusetts with a goal to make it “the most age-friendly state for people of all ages.” Among its beliefs: “Aging is an asset and something that you have to plan for.”

The Council’s recommendations were wide-ranging, from promoting the employment of older workers to using technology to improve access to transportation to minimizing loneliness and isolation.

Brookline, Massachusetts, a town next to Boston, with both age- and dementia-friendly designations, also has been busy.

In just two years, the mostly resident BrooklineCAN (as in Community Aging Network) has mapped public restrooms in town and elevators in residential buildings, tried to change zoning laws to allow “granny pods,” educated residents about their travel options, and created a property tax relief program for seniors. BrooklineCan puts out a newsletter and has a website, Facebook page and Twitter account (1200 followers).

Other ways communities are trying to improve citizens’ lives:

  • In St. Petersburg, FL, the Healthy St. Pete initiative has free classes in nutrition, wellness and healthy eating designed for low-income people in areas hard to find affordable fresh food, a mobile pantry, bike and nature trails, free yoga, and a citywide fitness challenge.
  • Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and Charlotte, North Carolina, are part of Cycling Without Age, started in Denmark. Trishaw cyclists (called “pilots”) peddle around town talking to their older passengers who live alone or in long-term care.
  • The Emeryville Center of Community Life in Emeryville, CA, is a seven-acre mixed-use, intergenerational area created jointly by the school system and the city. Besides elementary, intermediate and high school buildings, there’s a dental clinic, medical center, workout center and community events space.
  • Seattle, WA’s, Vision Zero aims to end traffic deaths and injuries on city streets by improving and redesigning roads, lowering speed limits, creating protected bike lanes and safer walking routes. There’s also a safest driver contest with a money reward.