There are places to live– to hang your hat and park your car between the comings and goings of life– and then there are communities. “Good communities” are generally recognized as places where residents feel safe, connected, and confident. They are places that invite you in– to be involved in civic matters, to stroll through town for farmer’s markets, or to sit in the park for an afternoon. When you’re integrated into your community, you feel like you belong and that you matter to the people, policymakers, and planners that you share it with. Communities can be found in suburbs, rural areas, and cities. They can be as small as a square block or as large as a county. A good community is constantly evolving with the people who live in it and responds to the needs of those who frequent it for work and play as well.
In recent history, there has been growing momentum in the United States to make our communities more inclusive– we are more mindful of ADA regulations, the need to disseminate information in multiple languages, and the growing desire for the diversity that makes every ecosystem thrive. As part of this momentum, we see cities, counties, and states committing to becoming “age-friendly.”
A community that is age-friendly is one in which all ages can thrive. It is a place where people want to grow up and grow older, throughout the entirety of life.
Many communities have a goal to become officially designated as age-friendly by AARP or the WHO (World Health Organization). How does a community reach this status? By focusing the efforts of its policymakers, elected officials, business owners, city planners, schools, architects, and community leaders on the eight domains of livability.
The Eight Domains of Livability
By looking at the following eight domains, community leaders can tackle what could be perceived as a monumental task: re-designing a place to be one in which ALL members can be active participants in the social, economic, and civic fabric of their community. Many of the domains overlap and when they do, it’s clear how intentionally designed communities cultivate spaces for meaningful intergenerational connections.
Outdoor Spaces & Buildings
Communities should offer public areas that welcome residents and visitors to gather both indoors and outside. Parks and green spaces should be located near to different neighborhoods, schools, and housing facilities. Within them, there should be places to sit comfortably and out of the sun. There should also be public restrooms that are safe and clean. City planners can integrate benches, areas to grill and picnic, play structures for various ages, and courts, fields, and waterways for athletes and spectators.
Sidewalks and paved roads should be well-maintained and buildings should be accessible to people with different physical and cognitive abilities. Inside, buildings should be brightly lit with clear signage that directs visitors to where they want to go or can receive assistance.
Being able to easily move about a community is a central aspect of inclusiveness. Transportation options should include reliable and affordable public transit options, rideshares, and a pedestrian and bike-friendly community layout. This, of course, will vary greatly depending on what type of community one lives in.
For rural regions especially this is a difficult task to undertake, but for that reason it is arguably more essential to the well-being of all of our residents. If people with young families, teenagers without cars, and older adults cannot easily leave their homes to engage in social interactions, then we risk isolating many of our community members. At the same time, it’s important not to take for granted that a particular neighborhood offers reliable transportation just because it is located in a city. If there is no clear way to safely access the underground metro, for example, with a stroller or a wheelchair, then it isn’t age-friendly either.
In every community, there should be diverse living options that are safe, clean, and well-maintained. Diverse living options include different types of housing facilities like one-level houses, apartment buildings with play structures and elevators, and co-living arrangements.
For younger residents, consider priorities like proximity to schools and services as well as main roads. For older adults, consider visitability and availability of home-based services. Providing a way for residents to be simultaneously safely independent and consistently social is a good rule to follow.
Community & Health Services
Age-friendly community leaders consider every life stage as significant and prioritize equitable, accessible health care and community services for all their neighbors. From prenatal care to hospice, community members should be able to find healthcare providers and services that make their lives healthier, more comfortable, and full of dignity.
This can be especially challenging in rural areas with limited services or with services that are geographically distant. It is important that this domain is a top priority when re-thinking a community to be more age-friendly, and it is made easier when considering in concert with the transportation and housing domains.
The goal is not to create communities where people co-exist alongside one another, but where community members co-mingle and share their lives. When designing or re-thinking spaces, community leaders should consider how they can support activities that encourage opportunities for learning, social, cultural, and spiritual activities.
In age-inclusive outdoor spaces and indoor buildings, it is a natural progression to offer intergenerational activities like movies, concerts, and pickle-ball tournaments, for example. These activities should be affordable, safe, and accessible to all community members. Considering adolescents and teenagers in this domain is important, too. In these years, young people are developing their social identities. Providing a safe, fun place for them to gather and interact with other ages creates opportunities for healthy relationship building.
Respect & Social Inclusion
Age-friendly communities cultivate environments where all community members from diverse backgrounds feel valued, respected, and seen. Spaces and activities should encourage intergenerational connections that reinforce inclusivity and equity. When designing social activities, include multicultural experiences that are culturally sensitive and develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of the diverse backgrounds of neighbors.
Civic Participation & Employment
All people desire to feel valued and as if they matter. This deeper personal meaning can be found in job opportunities, volunteer positions, and civic participation. Communities can be thoughtful in the way they offer job support services, instill age-friendly practices within places of businesses, and design opportunities to integrate people of all ages in volunteer opportunities in schools, nonprofits, and community events.
Civic participation should be highly encouraged through accessibility, including campaign events, voter registration and education, and polling locations or mail-in voting options. Community events and decision making tables should also be accessible and consider physical ability, language, location, and times. Furthermore, all voices should be genuinely considered when policymakers and elected officials are making decisions that impact everyone.
Communication & Information
Building on the previous domain, community leaders should consider how different community members reliably receive information. Community members vary greatly in their comfort with technology, the people they trust, and their preferred methods of communication.
Information should be disseminated in a variety of ways including digitally, in print publications like newspapers, via local television channels, and through trusted community partners and advocates who are integrated within sub-communities. Distribute information in the dominant languages of residents and provide surveys and feedback opportunities in multiple languages as well. Also, provide ample time for these educational materials to be spread throughout the community so that everyone can receive, absorb, and participate.
Meaningful Intergenerational Connections
When designing age-friendly communities, we should always think about how to create opportunities for meaningful intergenerational connections. These occur when spaces like community centers are designed to encourage shared programming such as fitness, arts or gardening. Housing can be designed and marketed for a mix of ages and paired with programming such as a mentoring program matching older adults with school aged youth or an intergenerational garden and cooking club. Playgrounds and parks can be designed to encourage recreation for all ages with youth and adult appropriate equipment, trails, regularly spaced benches and restrooms. Recreational programming designed for people of all abilities and ages can be designed to encourage interaction between diverse ages can be instrumental in making intergenerational the norm.
Often, we see the discussion and focus of age-friendly communities through the lens of making communities more accessible and inclusive to older adults. But to truly accomplish our goals, we must imagine a community in its entirety and work towards inclusiveness for all of the people who live, play, and work there.
Here is your opportunity to help make your community more age-friendly! A significant part of building age-friendly communities is the constant feedback from community members of all ages.