When you look around your community, who do you see? In the outdoor spaces, community programs, and volunteer positions– which of your neighbors are not only present, but enthusiastically welcomed? Is there transportation to get people to centrally located spaces? Can people access healthcare and civic engagement opportunities? When every neighbor– from the youngest to the eldest– is thoughtfully considered and woven into the fabric of your community, that is how you know it is age-friendly.
There are places, however, where reaching a “yes” to all of those questions is logistically more challenging. In rural towns, regions, and states– even those proximal to more urban areas– transportation, the built environment (e.g. housing, parks and community centers), and access to resources like healthcare and education become difficult. In rural areas that are economically depressed because industry has closed and jobs have gone elsewhere, creating and maintaining an age-friendly community can be even more difficult.
However, if the challenges are great, some rural communities’ motivations are proving their are even greater. In this article, we dive into three rural communities finding innovative solutions to creating more age-friendly places to grow up and grow older.
The Losses of Age-Friendly Rural America
Youth loneliness is a national health crisis here in the United States. At the same time, older adults across the country are experiencing social isolation and its far-reaching health impacts. While distinct experiences, the two are detrimental to the mental health of our neighbors, friends, and loved ones; and both are linked to a lack of social connectedness.
According to a 2019 poll, 2.5 million rural residents, nearly 7% of the rural population, say they have no friends or family to rely on. An additional 14 million rural residents (~39%) say they have only a few people, (NPR, Robert Wood Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 2019).
McGregor, Minnesota, drew the attention of NPR several years back for an article that examined the causes, consequences, and solutions to rural isolation. McGregor and its neighboring towns are beautiful– forested and with lakes scattered about the landscape. But the timber industry, small farms, and local businesses that sustained residents and their hometowns began struggling several decades ago. As it becomes more difficult to make a living in towns like these, young people leave to build careers elsewhere.
Those who remain experience economic hardship and weakened social ties. The two factors, lower income levels and social isolation, are intertwined. In fact, according to the poll mentioned above, rural adults living in households earning less than $25,000 per year say they always or often feel lonely and isolated from others at a higher rate than those who earn more money, (ibid).
In McGregor, Cheryl Meld, the director of KIDS PLUS, told NPR in 2019 that the economic hardship experienced by families has a negative impact on the families of the people she works with.
“If you talk with kids, they’ll tell you their parents are separated or divorced or going through some kind of substance [abuse] issue, and that’s commonplace,” Meld [told NPR]. “The reality of their life is a lot of disruption, a lot of sadness, a lot of kids filling adult roles in their families lives, helping raise their siblings.”
While kids struggle, older adults experience both geographic and social isolation exacerbated by economic hardship.
“Social connectedness doesn’t require significant financial resources, rather creativity and intentionality. While a rural community may not have an extensive transportation system it does have many opportunities to connect,” says Rachel B. Cohen, LinkAGES Director. “ For instance, Colorado’s Chaffee County is experimenting with a shared intergenerational housing program. Older adult participants open their home to a younger person, who may not be able to afford housing on their own, in exchange for help around the house. Ultimately the intergenerational connection and shared resources create a mutual benefit for the younger and older generations.”
Intergenerational Programs Reweave the Fabric of Minnesotan Communities
With social ties disintegrating, the only way to create meaningful connection is through intentional design. Minnesota’s Northland Foundation launched the KIDS PLUS Program in the early 1990s to “more actively improve the wellbeing of children in northeastern Minnesota,” according to their website. KIDS PLUS was the jump-off point that led to a family of intergenerational initiatives under AGE to age. Now, the AGE to age programs are rooted in both mutuality and community.
Intergenerational programs that are built around mutuality create a connection based in mutual contribution and benefit. Rather than the model of charitable giving or “serving”, mutuality is rooted in the recognition that every participant is bringing something to the table and is also receiving.
AGE to age: bringing generations together and AGE to age special projects connect young people and older adults to participate in projects together that benefit their communities. While they do so, they build meaningful intergenerational friendships. There are 18 AGE to age sites across Minnesota, each with its own vision statement and action plans, according to the website. The Northland Foundation and its partners also provide technical support, funding, and learning opportunities at each site. Project themes include history and ancestry research, tech learning, and culture and traditions.
The AGE to age Fellows Program pairs adults 50-years-and-older with a college student to work together in a community-building experience. Together, the Fellows take on projects like community gardens, youth programming, and social engagement opportunities. Both participants are paid, and they develop ideas and take on new opportunities that benefit their entire community.
Northland Foundation surveys show that 85% of children and youths participating in AGE to age say they have created new friendships with both peers and adults. And 100% of adult participants report increased interactions between older adults and youths in their community, according to Rhitu Chatterjee’s NPR article Bringing Together Young And Old To Ease The Isolation Of Rural Life.
These programs create opportunities for meaningful intergenerational connections so that participants feel connected and less isolated. They also build community connectedness overall and ensure that all over the state, neighbors get to know one another while strengthening community ties in age-friendly spaces. Of course, none of this could be possible without the vision and continued, multi-faceted support of The Northland Foundation.
Brass, Electric bikes, and Popcorn Draw Generations to Mingle in Logan County, CO
The vision of Embracing Aging on the Square was a collaboration between the local senior center, a retiree, and Colorado State University (CSU). Their goal was simple: create an annual event to bring community members of every age together. It’s not easy to launch a first-time event, especially one that is a little hard to describe; “Come old and young” is not exactly what we call an “age-friendly tagline.” So when the first Embracing Aging on the Square event in Logan County, CO, attracted only 35 participants and five vendors, the organizers didn’t give up.
Embracing Aging on the Square skipped a year, but when it came back in 2022, the organizers executed their vision clearly. They creatively piggy-backed on a longstanding monthly music event that already drew a crowd (not pictured). The high school jazz band was scheduled to play its monthly concert on the day of Embracing Aging on the Square, directly across the street from the town square.
With their regular attendees gathered, the jazz band acted as pied pipers- leading the audience across the street while playing some jazz tunes, and then assembled on the steps of the courthouse to play a mini-concert before the attendees dispersed to start visiting the Embracing Aging vendors and mingling with their neighbors.
The event included about 20 vendors, older adults on electric bikes and recumbents, a photo booth, a booth with a community survey, the county owned popcorn stand run by homeschooled children, free fresh vegetables from a meal program, and a Latinx group serving samples of foods native to its culture. This time, nearly 100 people attended the event.
By sticking with their vision, the organizers were able to more than triple their attendees and quadruple the vendors interested in participating. Choosing a centrally located area where neighbors had already been gathering for another age-friendly gathering were key components of success for an age-friendly event.
Building Physical Spaces that Encourage Organic Connection in Summit County, CO
In the previous examples, meaningful intergenerational connections are supported through structured programming and events. Communities can also build spaces where intergenerational interaction can arise organically through the very design of the physical spaces where community members gather. To be designated as “age-friendly,” communities need to provide public areas that are accessible to all ages– both indoors and outside, according to the AARP’s Eight Domains of Livability.
Summit County, CO’s community center is already a public gathering space that welcomes all ages. As the county plans to expand the building, there is conversation about moving the teen center from its existing location to the building.
When designing age-friendly indoor spaces, city planners and designers need to consider and blend a number of elements. This includes how to make the physical location accessible and welcoming as well as how to integrate design features in a way that encourages intergenerational interaction and meaningful connections. In Summit County, additional concerns have arisen when community members have discussed merging the teen center with the community center. People wonder if kids will be disruptive or unsupervised. The County isn’t dismissing these concerns, and are actually bringing the questions to the Age-Friendly Communities Interactive Discussions hosted by LinkAGES and the Lifelong Colorado Initiative in September and October 2022.
“Part of the reason that age-friendly communities are not widespread is that they require intentionality and patience to assess all aspects of the community through an inclusive lens. They require that everyone gets involved and is willing to collaborate– community members, planners, elected officials, businesses, non profits and funders. That takes time and a mutual understanding of what age-friendly looks like,” Rachel B. Cohen, LinkAGES Director says. “But it’s time for all of us to truly listen to the perspectives of all our community members and learn how to work together to co-create communities that we all want to live in.”
We must recognize how pivotal it is for our communities to feel social connection, to feel like they belong. While it may at times feel daunting, the cost of leaving our community members– especially our youth and older adults– estranged from one another is far too high. Some rural Americans, historically more resilient and creative in order to adapt to their surroundings, are showing the rest of us the way. Intergenerational programs, annual events, and built spaces are just some of the answers of how to create age-friendly communities for all of us.
Do you want to learn how you can help make your community age-friendly> Join LinkAGES and Lifelong Colorado Initiative for an interactive discussion series this September and October! Learn more and register via eventbrite!