Creating Age-Friendly Communities

If you are concerned with making our cities and suburbs healthy and livable for all, take a look at the wise and invaluable book, Elderburbia. Written by Philip Stafford[i], director of the Center on Aging and Community and the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community at Indiana University, this book speaks to urban designers, planners and architects as well as city officials, social workers, activists, and elders themselves.

From a deep appreciation of how the built environment affects everyday life and well-being, a profound understanding of the aging process and of the human need for membership in a multi-generational “complete” community, Stafford draws principles and guidelines for achieving elder-friendly communities. These characteristics have much in common with those for child-friendly communities promoted by IMCL and the Child-Friendly Communities Alliance.

This is no academic tome. Stafford presents his thesis with a light hand. In the first paragraph the reader is introduced to real people, members of the author’s family, and later to interviewees whose life experiences illustrate the dilemmas faced by elders, and satisfactory solutions.

Despite the book’s easy readability, it is constructed on a rigorous theoretical framework. Certain themes are fundamental to understanding what it means to grow old, and each theme is explored in depth. It is important to respect the experience of home, and the meaning of place in the lives of elders. Memories take on enhanced value to elders, and memories are inextricably linked to places. Considering the meaning-laden world in which we all live, Stafford guides us through the discussion: “what are the characteristics of communities that enable elders to flourish?”

Starting from the assumption that an Elder-Friendly Community “addresses basic needs; optimizes physical and mental health and well-being; maximizes independence for frail and disabled; and promotes social and civic engagement” the AdvantAge Initiative surveyed elder populations across the country and provided a “framework for developing new tools to enable communities to improve their local planning…”

Involving the community – and not just the elders – is essential: “… it is perhaps inherently undemocratic to create community institutions serving any particular age without considering the perspectives and wisdom of all ages, including children” argues Stafford. “Participation, in other words, is the key to effective community building.” The book examines numerous different methods for community participation, and how they can be adapted to meet local needs and circumstances.

The importance of community, of a network of friends and familiars, and of having a built environment that supports social life is an underlying thread throughout the book. From the porch or window where an elder can see passers by and exchange a few words, to the safe and lively sidewalk that lead to shops within walking distance; from the easily accessible park bench to the local café or other “third place” where elders and others gather, these details need to be available to elders and designed to enhance sociability.

Like IMCL, Stafford insists “Designing a community that works for people across the lifespan is not simply the work of architects and urban planners. While the built environment is critically important to the quality of life for citizens, so too is the social environment in which daily activities are embedded… So good design of elder-friendly spaces must be based on a framework that integrates the social and the physical…”

The book culminates with “Design Guidelines for the New Elderburbia”. This chapter presents five principles, and for each, a set of design responses to accomplish the principle. “Principle One: Neighborliness” invokes the first design response “Promote opportunities for social interaction. Social interaction is abetted by the creation of foils for conversation – elements in the environment that bring people together around a common interest or focus.” This is followed by a host of imaginative ideas for supporting interaction ranging from the location of garbage cans, to organization of community events, and is followed by ways to enhance privacy when desired.

Design responses are suggested for each of the subsequent principles: “An environment for growth, learning, autonomy”; “A positive image of the environment”; “Diverse and affordable housing options”; and “A community for all ages”. Far from focusing narrowly on retirement communities, and going well beyond the recent concept of “aging in place”, Stafford is proposing that most elders may now be seeking to “age in community”. This does not necessarily imply creating intentional “co-housing” enclaves, but rather, reshaping our cities and suburban areas so that they become more compact, more walkable and more sociable “complete” communities that enhance quality of life for all.

[i]   Philip Stafford was an invited keynote speaker at the 49th IMCL Conference in May 2012, and serves on the IMCL Board.