We hear a lot these days about the need to make communities smart and sustainable. But there's another aspect of our communities that is getting more and more attention, not only from forward-looking public officials but also in university studies and international conferences: preparing communities to be friendly for the unprecedented aging of their populations.
It's not hard to see why more communities are recognizing the need to be age-friendly. According to data from the Census Bureau and AARP, one in three Americans is 50 or older now, and by 2030 one in five will be 65 or older. Long before that, however, the 76.4 million baby boomers will be making their needs known as the generational gap widens: The 50-plus contingent will grow over the next decade by 19 million, compared to only 6 million for the 18-49 population.
This cohort of aging Americans is characterized by longer life expectancies, more energetic lifestyles and greater economic power than previous older generations enjoyed. As they look at their communities, age-friendliness -- the state of policy-making and planning for everything from health care and housing to economic development and transportation -- is going to become even more important to them. "Many thought leaders now believe that the communities that fare best in the 21st century will be those that both tackle the challenges and embrace the positive possibilities that an aging population creates," as Grantmakers in Aging put it in a 2013 study.
One other pragmatic consideration is that compared to younger generations, older Americans are much more likely to vote. So as community leaders look for ways to provide older Americans with what they want and need, they can draw guidance from a recent national survey conducted by DHM Research in partnership with the Institute on Aging at Portland State University, Oregon Public Broadcasting and AARP-Oregon:
• While nine in 10 Americans over age 75 feel it is important for their communities to work toward becoming more age-friendly, eight in 10 percent of adults of all ages agree with that sentiment. Among 10 choices, the top three that survey respondents identified for making a community age-friendly were housing (25 percent), health services (24 percent), and employment and the economy (21 percent).
• When asked specifically about the most important strategies for supporting seniors and people with disabilities, topping the list for Americans of all ages, at 33 percent, was better alignment of housing, transportation and social needs. The next most popular strategies: providing more physical and mental health promotion and preventive services (25 percent) and better access to help and information including personal financial planning resources (18 percent).
None of these issues are new, of course; what's new is the increasing amount of attention being paid to them. Last year was an important year for older Americans, from the expansion of the U.S. and global Networks of Age-Friendly Communities to the White House Conference on Aging. Meanwhile, Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act celebrated their 50th anniversaries, while the Social Security Act turned a venerable 80. These programs represent our existing economic and social infrastructure for older Americans. The challenge, as with other forms of infrastructure, is maintaining it in good repair while laying the groundwork at all levels of government for future needs. The needs and interests of older Americans will shift demand for government services and programs just as they will with private-sector products and services.
And it isn't just about older Americans. The development of age-friendly communities deserves the support of all ages, for one very important reason: We're all growing older. As Portland State's Margaret Neal and Alan DeLaTorre wrote in a report published in February, "What we do now to make our communities good places to grow up and grow old will yield returns not only for today's elders but also tomorrow's -- that is, for all of us."