Lessons Learned from Age-Friendly Columbus and Franklin County
While pumping gas recently, my four-year-old son yelled out his open window “Look, Mom! An old lady is next to you!” You might perceive this interaction as unkind, or even rude. But in our house, old age is revered. With my relentless reframing of ageist messages and the relationships my family have with people of all ages, my children embrace older adults. My son’s second observation clarifies. “Oh mom, she’s beautiful.”
Now my natural reaction to his innocent, yet emphatic commentary was to of course worry that this woman only heard his first comment. Because at face value, she cannot see that we are in fact a family of gero-enthusiasts. She wouldn’t know that my children are named after my grandparents (Sylvia Rose and Walter Louis). Or that our cats are named after elders that have influenced their lives (Betty and Sam). That we discuss aging and disability in empowering terms. She wouldn’t know that we volunteer with and for older adults frequently.
And in that brief moment, all I could hope was that this older woman with long flowing silver hair heard my son’s true message. And what I really hope is that she, too, embraces her own aging. That she feels respected and purposeful on an on-going basis. That she has opportunities to contribute to her community and our greater society, should she want to.
Lesson #1: Ageism is pervasive.
The problem is, statically speaking, she is not likely to share in our views. In an international study on ageism led by The World Health Organization, 60% of respondents reported that older people are not respected. This is a staggering, and unacceptable number in my opinion, at a time when our 65+ population is growing at a rate never before experienced. Oftentimes the growth of the aging population is portrayed in a negative light, as the “silver tsunami” and “boomer drain.” At the same time, we are told to exercise, eat right, and be proactive in seeking innovative medical care. So essentially, be healthy, but don’t you dare grow old.
Lesson #2: We are all growing older every day.
Enter the World Health Organization and AARP International Network of Age-Friendly Communities. This mighty group of communities across the world is embracing aging and empowering change through the voice and work of older adults. Through their work, communities have been given a “how to” on proactively planning for the converging demographic shifts of population aging and urbanization. A breath of fresh air and tangible retort for those growing older, and those working in the field of aging.
Communities across the world can enter the network by committing to a five-year cycle of improvement. This commitment is made through a letter and application from an elected official to the World Health Organization (if you are in the US, this is done through your state AARP Office). Each community is tasked with evaluating eight domains:
- Communication and Information
- Respect and Social Inclusion
- Outdoor Spaces and Buildings
- Social Participation
- Civic Participation and Employment
- Community and Health Services
Lesson #3: An age-friendly community is good #ForAllAges
Year 1: Assessment
So what does an age-friendly community process look like? In Columbus, Ohio, we dedicated ourselves to planning with, not for, our older adults. For us, that meant committees made up of content experts (professionals working in transit, housing, development, aging, and elected officials) and experience experts (older adults and individuals with disabilities) totaling over 125 volunteers that lead our work. Our initiative started at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, outside of the typical “aging world” in order to challenge cross-sector leaders to work with an “age-in-everything lens.” In 2016, we completed our assessment through a city-wide random sample survey, focus groups held in six languages, and tabling at various events. In total, we heard from nearly 1,200 older adults over the course of six months.
Year 2: Strategic Plan
We analyzed our data and reconvened our committees over the course of 2017. Through multiple committee meetings and a national best-practices review, we created a list of potential strategies to make our community more age-friendly. We took these strategies and tested them with older adults through a public workshop. This robust public outreach and planning resulted in our Strategic Plan. Every decision, committee, focus group, and strategy was lead through our cross-sector, multi-generational approach.
Year 3-5: Implementation
After completing the research and planning phases we were faced with the decision of where to house the implementation phase. The Ohio State University College of Social Work was the natural choice, due to their dedication to excellence in research, service, community well-being, and social and economic justice for vulnerable populations. We made the intentional decision to open an office in a neighborhood just outside of downtown, so that we could lead grass-roots advocacy efforts. We are finishing our first year of implementation, and Year 3 of the entire process. This entailed the completion or progress on 14 strategies, ranging from creating new programs to securing funding to increase capacity of current programs.
Implementation is an emotional rollercoaster of fast deadlines, savvy collaboration, political tip-toeing, and good old fashioned grass-roots scrappiness. Each day we have the privilege of asking our elders what they want and need, then identifying community organizations capable and interested in leading these improvements. And, in a perfect world, securing funding in order to empower organizations to do so. Our strategies often include an element of an “elder advisory council,” or integrate older adult volunteers in some capacity.
Lesson #4: “When you give input, you want to see change” –Columbus elder
Although heralded as one of the leading cities in the U.S. Network of Age-Friendly Communities, the spirit of this initiative lives in our neighborhoods. Whether it's park revitalizations, community focus groups, or intergenerational BBQ’s,
this initiative celebrates the strength and wisdom of our elders. Under the mission of Ohio State’s College of Social Work, Age-Friendly believes in dignity and worth of individuals, no matter their age, ability, or zip code. And with our partners at Franklin County, we will continue to expand this work across our region to ensure we can all thrive as we age.
Lesson #5: The history of your neighborhood lives with your elders.
There is no better way to connect and inspire individuals than through highlighting stories of elders in your community. In the case of Columbus, we had the opportunity to film a mini-documentary that ties the eight domains of an Age-Friendly community to the life of one of our elder advisors.
A Day In The Life of Karen has been shared with audiences across the US, including planning, aging, transportation professionals, middle-schoolers, and community advocacy groups. I can tell you from experience that Karen is special. Her perseverance, attitude, and grace are unparalleled. I can also tell you that behind the doors of your neighbors are stories just as beautiful and compelling. Stories of love, loss, pain, and joy. Experiences of lives long-lived that, when given the opportunity, can shape and lead community improvement far beyond your expectations.
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