Building an Age-Friendly Community

Age-friendly communities, as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), are those that older adults find to be welcoming. These are communities and regions that are actively friendly toward, and supportive of, older adults. They provide a built environment that is age-friendly, a vibrant community with opportunities for civic engagement, and a mix of services and resources for older adults.

Age-Friendly Community Framework

The World Health Organization is working with partner agencies in many countries around the world to bring the issue of building age-friendly communities to the forefront of community planning. In the U.S., their partner is the American Association of Retired Persons, which has many millions of members, and a strong staff and network. The association has developed an age-friendly calculator, or framework for rating U.S. states, counties and many communities. Their framework uses many of the factors listed below. I have clustered some of the factors together for easier grouping, using some terms that economic development and holistic community development professionals use, such as the “built environment.”

  • Built environment (housing, transportation, quality of the neighborhood);
  • Natural resources (clean air and water, parks);
  • Healthcare (prevention, access to care, and quality of healthcare);
  • Community engagement and opportunity (civic engagement, social opportunities, music, art, recreational facilities, work and volunteering possibilities).

Why Age-Friendly is Important

What is important about this framework from the association is a focus on building inclusive communities. Communities which are age-friendly toward older adults are considered to be more inclusive, with safe, good quality, affordable housing. In addition to housing, the built environment is healthy, with strong ratings for community safety, good public transportation, and other amenities. The natural environment is well-tended, with excellent natural resources, clean air and water. The health care system has strong ratings, including good access to care, a mix of available services, quality hospital care, and other health-related factors. Finally, communities are rated on their quality of life: civic engagement in neighborhood groups, nonprofits and volunteering, political organizations, and opportunities for older adults.

These age-friendly ratings are helpful not only for people looking for ideal retirement homes, but for community leaders and planners as they focus on creating a positive future for their communities. These ratings could become important benchmarks that can identify the healthiest, most age-friendly communities, provide helpful models, and serve as an important stamp of approval.

Kudos for this national aging association’s work on identifying many factors that make for age-friendly communities. It’s helpful that this national association is sharing the information throughout their large network, and giving great press to those communities that are focused on being age-friendly.

Other Key Elements

Other elements that are important to communities seeking to be more ready to deal with the increasing proportion of older adults include population, economic, and other trend analysis. That helps move the framework from a static analysis of what exists now, to a dynamic analysis and projection of what would happen in future years if current trends continue. It’s important for communities and states to understand how trends will shape their communities, and what they need to do to respond proactively.

Some communities and counties that are age-friendly now, when trends are studied, show that they can and probably will become increasingly age-friendly in the future. Other communities have trends at work that can create significant demographic, social, economic and structural challenges, which they need to understand and address in order to have a vibrant, age-friendly community moving forward into the future.