Lessons Learned from Age-Friendly Columbus and Franklin County

By Katie White

Katie White is the Director of Age-Friendly Communities at The Ohio State University College of Social Work. Katie studied gerontology and has spent her career working and volunteering with older adults. Her experience in person-centered program development at the Alzheimer’s Association sparked an ongoing passion for elevating the voice of older adults in the community and continues to influence her work today.

Feb 19, 2019 | Society | 4 comments


Who will you meet?

Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.

Meet these peers and discuss the future of cities in the new Meeting of the Minds Executive Cohort Program. Replace boring virtual summits with facilitated, online, small-group discussions where you can make real connections with extraordinary, like-minded people.


 

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:

  • Housing
  • Transportation
  • 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.

Discussion

Leave your comment below, or reply to others.

Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.

4 Comments

  1. This is very interesting for me and my research projects. Keep me informed on further developments, please.

    Reply
  2. Thanks for the summary! Much appreciated!

    Reply
  3. Super Interesting and very relevant. At the World Bank we are only now beginning to address the issue of aging cities and how this will impact our work globally. Hope we can have a chance to learn more about these interesting approaches to the challenge.

    Reply
  4. Excellent and thoughtful summary. You and your team are focused and passionate. Thanks for all you are doing!

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org

Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology

How Affordable Green Housing Enhances Cities

How Affordable Green Housing Enhances Cities

Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.  

The Pandemic, Inequality, Housing Affordability, and Urban Land

The Pandemic, Inequality, Housing Affordability, and Urban Land

Since the Great Recession of 2008, the housing wealth gap has expanded to include not just Black and Brown Americans, but younger White Americans as well. Millennials and Generation Z Whites are now joining their Black and Brown peers in facing untenable housing precarity and blocked access to wealth. With wages stuck at 1980 levels and housing prices at least double (in inflation adjusted terms) what they were 40 years ago, many younger Americans, most with college degrees, are giving up on buying a home and even struggle to rent apartments suitable for raising a family.

What makes it hard for policy people and citizens to accept this truth is that we have not seen this problem in a very long time. Back in the 1920s of course, but not really since then. But this is actually an old problem that has come back to haunt us; a problem first articulated by Adam Smith in the 1700s.

Multi-modal Transit and the Public Realm

Multi-modal Transit and the Public Realm

More than ever, urban transit services are in need of sustainable and affordable solutions to better serve all members of our diverse communities, not least among them, those that are traditionally car-dependent. New mobility technologies can be a potential resource for local transit agencies to augment multi-modal connectivity across existing transit infrastructures.

We envision a new decentralized and distributed model that provides multi-modal access through nimble and flexible multi-modal Transit Districts, rather than through traditional, centralized, and often too expensive Multi-modal Transit Hubs. Working in collaboration with existing agencies, new micro-mobility technologies could provide greater and seamless access to existing transit infrastructure, while maximizing the potential of the public realm, creating an experience that many could enjoy beyond just catching the next bus or finding a scooter. So how would we go about it?

The Future of Cities

Mayors, planners, futurists, technologists, executives and advocates — hundreds of urban thought leaders publish on Meeting of the Minds. Sign up below to follow the future of cities.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Wait! Before You Leave —

Wait! Before You Leave —

Subscribe to receive updates on the Executive Cohort Program!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This