Here’s what we know: Anything designed to facilitate access, engagement, safety, enjoyment and participation by older people is good for all age groups. So, why aren’t we doing more of it?
The idea of creating “age-friendly” communities isn’t a new one.
In 2011 Des Moines became the first Iowa community to earn the distinction of being an Age-Friendly Community, a partnership between the World Health Organization and AARP. Sadly, it remains the only Iowa community to complete the process, although Charles City in Floyd County has been exploring the idea.
Two years ago Iowa City was named the best small city for successful aging by the Milken Institute. The group ranks communities in nine areas: general livability, health care, wellness, financial security, education, transportation and convenience, employment, living arrangements and community engagement.
Former Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett signed a pledge crafted by the Milken Institute in 2014 to “join the movement for purposeful, healthy aging and create cities that are livable for all.” But the same year that Iowa City took top honors, Cedar Rapids was No. 82 — behind Ames (3), Dubuque (31) and Waterloo-Cedar Falls (42). The only Iowa location on the list of 281 small cities to fare worse was the Quad Cities, which came in at 153.
This isn’t for lack of ideas. Schoolchildren, including some in Dubuque and Cedar Rapids, as well as university students have worked with various communities throughout the state in developing ideas on how to become more age-friendly. They are doing so because, by 2050, the number of older adults on the planet will exceed the number of children younger than 14.
The population of older people in the United States is expected to double in the next two decades. Here in Iowa, at least 20 percent of the population in 73 of the state’s 99 counties is expected to be at least age 65 within three decades. (In 2000, only 30 Iowa counties held that demographic.)
As of 2010, Iowa’s metro centers — Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Sioux City, Waterloo and Dubuque — were home to 17.8 percent of Iowa residents age 65 or older.
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AARP Iowa has planned a public meeting for April 4 at the Cedar Rapids Downtown Library to release full results from a recent survey of older residents. The small glimpse given in advance to local journalists shows challenge and promise. For instance, of the nearly 400 Cedar Rapids residents age 50 and older who participated in the survey, nine out of 10 say the city rates “good” or better for aging in place — something that 88 percent of all respondents say is either “very” or “extremely” important to them.
More than 95 percent also report that it is “very” or “extremely” important to remain active as they age.
Most survey respondents are lifetime or near-lifetime residents of Cedar Rapids, but it’s worth noting that about a quarter report moving to the area within the past 25 years; 6 percent arrived in the past five years.
“City leaders deserve a great deal of credit for their vision and the work that has already been put in since the flood to make the community more age-friendly,” said Ro Foege, a Cedar Rapids resident and AARP Iowa Executive Council member. “Our goal is to help the community continue this positive momentum and ensure that the needs and interests of the 50-plus are addressed through all future planning efforts.”
AARP conducted the survey late last year and early this year as part of its Livable Communities initiative to gauge Cedar Rapids residents’ opinions on livability. It covered topics of interest to residents as they age in place, including the condition of streets and sidewalks, access to walking and biking trails, home modifications, public parks, public transportation, health and physical fitness, and more.
AARP Iowa State Director Brad Anderson will lead the discussion and hopes to hear city residents’ perspective on the livability of Cedar Rapids and how AARP can support local efforts to provide safe, walkable streets, age-friendly housing, transportation options, and access to needed services in the community.
Cedar Rapids is important to AARP Iowa because it is a “community of presence,” meaning it, like Des Moines, contains a high concentration of state AARP members. Organizers are advocating and laying the groundwork for Cedar Rapids to become the next official “Age-Friendly Community” in the state.
Linn County government recently published a list of resources for older adults. It spans seven pages and includes information on 52 state and local agencies, initiatives and organizations that focus on housing, health care, nutrition, finances and engagement. Even so, the document barely scratches the surface of the large and small networks that exist locally to help older residents remain engaged and active in the community. These include writing, all-age recreation advocates and various other clubs. It includes coffee meetings, political organizations and business associations. There are classes and educational opportunities that help older residents learn new technology or connect with others who share their interests.
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While the AARP Iowa survey probably will provide exact metrics, it doesn’t take long to find older residents who crave more opportunities to engage with their community by mentoring or volunteering. Even those who drive themselves speak about the possibilities of more effective public transit, and those who own their own homes lament the inability of adult children to afford local housing.
These are issues that span generations, that cannot be tackled by one entity. And simply opening the topic for discussion has its benefits.
Every facet of the community has a role to play — museums, grocery stores, banks, churches and neighborhood associations, just to name a few. We all can work together and be leaders in creating an age-friendly community that benefits us all. And, if we earn accolades and official designations along the way, all the better.
• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, firstname.lastname@example.org