U.S. cities can be unkind to elderly residents, with services and social opportunities spread out and access difficult for people without a personal vehicle or the ability to drive. Transit in many cities doesn’t fill the gap. People with limited mobility are poorly served by streets, sidewalks and other public spaces built with lax adherence to the accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Housing affordability can be a struggle for a senior citizen on a fixed income.
In Columbus, Ohio, where the number of residents age 65 and older is set to double over the next three decades, the city wants to change that narrative.
In 2015, the city joined the World Health Organization and AARP’s Network for Age-Friendly Cities and launched the Age-Friendly Columbus initiative. Last week, it released the Age-Friendly Strategic Plan, which outlines policy and infrastructure goals for improving public spaces, housing, transportation, social inclusion, emergency preparedness, and more for older residents.
“We know that the majority of residents want to age in their home,” says Katie White, Age-Friendly Columbus coordinator. “We’re supporting them with proactive planning. It will require a modification of services, making sure their needs are met before a crisis happens.”
Fixing the built environment is a key piece of the puzzle. Missing curb cuts, broken sidewalk and street surfaces, a lack of ramps into buildings, short crosswalk signals, walkways too narrow for people with walkers or wheelchair users all make cities difficult and even dangerous to navigate for people with mobility impairments.
As part of the initiative, Age-Friendly Columbus produced a short documentary showing a day in the life of Karen Peters, a 74-year-old resident with essential tremor (a movement disorder) and a type of muscular dystrophy. Peters relies on a walker and a scooter to get around. She has managed to maintain her independence, but it takes significant forethought, planning and effort.
“You can’t imagine it, but almost every person’s house has steps of some kind. I have to really know where I’m going and know there’s going to be someone there to help me in and out. If I’m going someplace new, I have to think about that,” she explains.
Peters says she never starts crossing the street if the signal is counting down. She waits another light cycle to start her crossing with a fresh signal to ensure she has enough time. There are other issues she has to consider before heading out on her own that people without mobility impairments might take for granted. Do the sidewalks on her route have curb cuts? Will the restaurant she’s going to be able to accommodate her scooter?
Columbus’ strategic plan outlines 54 programing, policy and infrastructure goals to implement over the next few years. Next year, the city wants to do 15 of them, addressing public space accessibility, transportation, social inclusion and more.
Transportation is a big one for car-centric Columbus. The city is going to pilot a “senior circulator” bus between hubs in the Clintonville and Beechwold neighborhoods. Officials want to create a Safe Routes for Seniors program and map accessible walking routes in the city. There are plans to lengthen crossing times for signalized crosswalks.
In the public realm, there will be a checklist for evaluating the age-friendliness of indoor and outdoor public spaces and evaluation in the coming year. Similarly, the initiative will lead to the creation of a list of age-friendly businesses.
To help empower older adults, Age-Friendly Columbus will lead training on housing insecurity, eviction laws and maintaining stable housing.
In future years, the initiative will tackle emergency services and preparation, aging in place and intergenerational socializing. White says in their planning workshops and outreach, they frequently heard complaints about negative stereotypes of older adults. Programs will aim to connect elders with everyone from middle-school students to university students.
“Studies show the more exposure young people have with older adults, the less uncomfortable they are with aging,” White says. “The U.S. maybe has some more work to do because we are an anti-aging culture.”
Columbus is not alone in thinking about how to be more accessible to older residents. As part of the strategic planning, officials looked to several other U.S. cities for best practices, and see New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Cleveland, and Auburn Hills, Michigan, all members of WHO’s Age-Friendly Network, as leaders in age-friendly city planning.
Atlanta has been addressing the issue for over 25 years now. According to a 2014 Next City article on age-friendly cities by Edward McClellan, Atlanta’s 1992 visitability ordinance mandated that “certain new single-family homes have 32-inch-wide doors, a zero-step entrance and first-floor bathroom walls reinforced to support grab bars.” Though it was intended to serve people with physical disabilities, the model was replicated more widely as a way to serve older residents.
Three neighborhoods in New York — East Harlem, the Upper West Side and Bedford-Stuyvesant — are designated Aging Improvement Districts. Because of that, they have special senior hours at the public pool, provide chairs to neighborhood businesses and have done work to make public housing laundromats more accessible.
Long term, White says, the goal is to make Columbus age friendly in every sense of the word. “The piece that ties it all together is chipping away at these negative stereotypes against older adults,” she says, It can be done with this intentional planning work. … We want to change the way people think from sympathy to empathy.”
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.