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As you grow older, will your city or community be able to accommodate your needs? Will you be able to walk to a park, maneuver the sidewalks, find appropriate housing and transportation, get quick help in the event of an emergency, and keep yourself from becoming vulnerable to fraud or abuse?
All of these elements are what make for an age-friendly community—something that is at the heart of the World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly Initiative.
“This is an initiative that the WHO undertook in recognition that the worldwide population is growing older,” says Gail Kohn, coordinator for Age-Friendly DC. “I would draw a distinction between people growing older and those who are older. This is not an initiative focused solely on people who are older. It’s about communities getting ready for the future and transforming themselves to make it easier for people as they age.”
Supporting the WHO Initiative
Age-Friendly DC is part of a worldwide network of cities and communities that are working to transform their local environments in support of the WHO initiative. Since 2012, Age-Friendly DC has been working with local government agencies and community organizations to make Washington, D.C., an easier place to live across all age demographics.
In a recent report outlining the progress of the last five years, Age-Friendly DC shared the following status report for Washington, D.C., in 10 critical areas:
Outdoor Spaces and Buildings
- 97% of D.C. residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park
- 14,147 trees planted
- 38% tree canopy cover
Safe and Affordable Transportation
- Pedestrian deaths down 40% from 2015 to 2016
- 724 new curb ramps
- 37,000 square feet of sidewalk improvements
- 10,903 new sign placements
- Non-compliance with public transit stops cut in half
Housing Options to Allow for Aging in Place
- 310 new units of below market-rate housing underway for grandparent-led households
- Genesis Apartments offers 27 affordable units for older adults and young parents who help one another
- Zoning laws changed to increase allowance of Accessory Dwelling Units
- Fair Housing complaints cut in half since 2012
- 2,900 older residents are attending wellness centers
Respect and Inclusion
- Older residents volunteering 94 hours per year on average
Civic Participation and Employment
- Unemployment rate for older residents down from 8.5% to 6.2%
- 43 age-friendly businesses in D.C.
- 200 direct service providers trained in LGBTQ cultural competency
- 23% more residents connected to the internet
- 350,000 reached each month through older-oriented Beacon newspapers
Community Support and Health Services
- 99.2% of D.C. residents over 65 have health insurance; 96% of all residents insured
- D.C. ranked second fittest city in America
Emergency Preparedness and Resilience
- 170,000 residents reached by new AlertDC system
Elder Abuse, Neglect and Fraud
- 300 police detectives and 200 judges trained in elder abuse
Many of these improvements occurred based on analysis of what was needed to ensure the health and safety of residents of residents across the entire age spectrum. For instance, the expansion of the tree canopy was meant to provide more shade as well as make the air more breathable.
“Trees put oxygen into the air and use carbon dioxide,” Kohn explains, “so we benefit from having trees in the environment because we’re healthier as a result.”
As part of the WHO initiative, Age-Friendly DC analyzed the city environment to make sure it would a safe place for all ages—everyone from children to senior citizens.
“We had a block-by-block walk across the city to examine how safe our sidewalks and street crossings were,” Kohn says. “We made sure we had someone lead the walk who was 50-plus and also had others along, including someone who was pushing a child in a stroller. As a consequence, we were able to make a lot progress in improving our sidewalks, installing new curb ramps, and adding new signs.”
In addition, the city improved bus stops that were previously inaccessible to the disabled. “We cut in half the number of bus stops that had accessibility issues, making it possible for disabled people to get undercover and sit down while waiting for the bus,” Kohn reports.
A Growing 50-Plus Population
Much of the progress achieved in Washington, D.C., will be beneficial to those in the 50-plus age demographic, which is a growing segment of the city’s population.
“In D.C., we have about 200 people a month in the 50-plus age group who are moving into the city as empty-nesters from where they previously lived,” Kohn says. “They’re looking for housing units that are horizontal—that is with not very many or no steps. They are looking for energized cities that provide opportunities for having fun as well as to work.”
Another aspect of an aging population is the growth in multiple generations living together. In some cases, it’s grandparents living in the same household as parents and their children. In other cases, it’s grandchildren being raised by their grandparents because of absent parents.
Having interacted with students at George Washington University, Kohn has noticed receptivity on the part of young people to engage with people in those from their grandparents’ generation.
“Students are realizing that there are minds there. There are interesting conversations that can be shared among people of different generations on topics they both care about. So, our belief is that the intergenerational aspect of what we are doing will increase.”
Age-Friendly DC also is strongly focused on health and fitness. The city has an insured rate of 96% for all residents and 99.2% for residents over 65.
“That’s because we have been very intentional about it,” Kohn says. “The ACA came along, and we built our exchange around making sure people were insured.”
Washington, D.C., also scores high with fitness, ranking second highest in the country. “We are very focused on fitness and staying in shape, and we are very focused on that for older adults as well,” Kohn says.
Life is a Continuum
Having evaluated the progress made in the five-year span from 2012-2017, Age-Friendly DC is now in the process of assessing and planning for implementation of additional improvements for the next five years. The public-private organization initiative will continue to follow the WHO guidance to ensure that D.C. becomes even friendlier to its aging population in the future.
“The WHO views aging as a lifelong experience,” Kohn says. “Everybody is aging, from the moment we are born. Life is a continuum, and we need to keep that in mind as we implement this initiative.”
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