Awareness, action create ‘aging-friendly’ communities

I’m a midlife marathon runner. To stay in shape, I’ve run countless miles through Candler Park, Inman Park, the Fourth Ward, Ormewood and many other intown neighborhoods. I love running these areas as I can view some of the exciting changes in the city, such as the Beltline and Atlanta Streetcar project. And I can “Imagine Memorial” right along with those involved in the Memorial Drive project.

I am also a gerontologist. From this perspective, I am troubled that our communities are unsafe places for residents who may have difficulties getting around their neighborhoods. As much as I love running through Atlanta, the uneven sidewalks, dangling overhead wires and unsafe intersections can be treacherous.

And as a baby boomer, I think of these issues often because of the burgeoning number of people like me who are part of our communities.

Cities are just coming to realize the importance of planning for the growing numbers of us who might have trouble crossing streets, driving our own cars or navigating the environment in other ways. A survey reports only 30 percent of local governments have a strategic plan that includes input from older adults about ways to create “aging-friendly” communities.

What will this mean when one in every five people is over age 65 — the population predicted for 2030?

In later life, a challenging physical environment can lead to problems such as falls, injuries and social isolation. Changes to vision and mobility limitations can make daily activities more complicated.

It’s important for everyone to be more aware of how walking, talking and shopping can present challenges as we age. As a teacher, I start the semester by having my students “try on” aging. They must navigate a sidewalk while wearing glasses smeared with petroleum jelly; hold a conversation in a noisy restaurant while wearing earplugs; and go to an unfamiliar mall and find a bathroom when a buzzer rings. With shock and alarm, they learn how difficult some typical activities become under these conditions.

Changing communities to be more aging-friendly has costs. For example, as older adults stop driving, many locations offer few alternatives. However, developing a safe and accessible public transportation system will benefit everyone (in the way of convenience, less traffic and better air quality).

For many older adults, transportation systems promote engagement, such as going to religious services or the library, and the ability to manage their households — getting groceries or prescriptions filled. Besides transportation, communities need to plan for affordable housing options, zoning laws that promote higher-density residential units and mixed commercial use, and tax structures that allow older adults to remain in their homes.

Regardless of changes, some older adults will need more supportive or specialized facilities, such as assisted living or nursing homes. However, the national average cost for a nursing home bed is between $75,000 and $80,000 per year. It makes sense to keep older people healthy and safe, and to reduce the number of admissions to nursing homes.

In addition to fiscal logic, there are significant quality of life issues to consider. When you envision your own later life, where do you see yourself? What do you hope for your parents as they age? Strategic and age-specific community planning, such as the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Lifelong Communities, could allow older individuals to remain in familiar surroundings and stay engaged in their communities for as long as possible.

Each of us can be involved in making communities safer for everyone, including older residents. Let your neighborhood groups, city council members and county leaders know about hazardous places in your environment, like buckling sidewalks, poorly lit streets and dangerous street crossings. Raise questions about budget priorities to candidates, and vote for those who have visions about aging-friendly communities. Develop a neighborhood watch program that brings residents together to build strong bonds, and work with law enforcement to make the community a safer place for everyone.

Community planning and redevelopment — in our established neighborhoods, and in newer projects popping up around the metro area — must take into account the population of older adults who are aging in place.

The growth in our region is good for our economy. Let’s also be sure it’s good for residents of all ages who live in all of our metro Atlanta neighborhoods.

Dr. Nancy Kropf is a professor in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. She always finishes her 26.2-mile races.