Walking Toward Age-Friendly Cities

A low-tech low-cost strategy for stoking age friendly places

Posted Mar 19, 2019

Stephen Coburn/Dreamstime
Walking leads to many opportunities, alone and together
Source: Stephen Coburn/Dreamstime

Imagine walking outdoors on safe sidewalks, with convenient benches to aid those a little further along in the challenges of aging, and arriving at a bakery, or a library, or a park, perhaps one equipped with a senior playground. (https://www.governing.com/topics/health-human-services/gov-senior-playgrounds-popping-up.html)

Sidewalks, benches, and bakeries may seem a strange way to foster aging well but combined they are a path for health far into the life course, and a blueprint for our aging society.

The idea builds on a ground-up approach advocated by European researchers on how urban seniors could improve their local environment by using “Short distances strung together with staging posts” such as benches, bus shelters, restrooms set along safe sidewalks and crosswalks. (Peace, 2013) The idea is attractive because it is relatively low-cost, highly visible, and sets a strong foundation for further age-friendly steps, leading to age-friendly places as part of the nascent age-friendly city movement.  

Walking plays into the facets of the wellness triangle for seniors, providing physical, social and intellectual stimulation, all as interconnected as a “complete street” leading to a community center where stimulations help seniors together harvest and share wisdom naturally as flowers blooming infertile places. 

These are not academic ideas, but common sense observations about what humans need to stay well individually and collectively.   Public policy now needs to reflects that 78 million Americans will be over 65 in 2035, when there will be more seniors than children for the first time in American history, according to a 2017 US Census report. Yet, public infrastructure still prioritizes the needs of youth and creates barriers for senior participation in society.         

According to the Center for Disease Control, only 20 percent of middle age Americans exercise enough to attain health benefits. Why is this? “It is common that large proportions of older people are willing to increase their physical activity level, but do not perceive they have the opportunity to do so."    (Iwarsson, et al)

In many cases, it’s because they need a safe way to get someplace worth going. Transportation consistently ranks tops among problems seniors cite. Older adults often cite inconvenient access to facilities, expense, and unsafe neighborhoods as barriers to exercise, says Dr. Laura Berk in her classic text, Development Across the Lifespan.  She writes, “Accessible, attractive and safe exercise environments, parks, walking, and biking trails and community recreation centers-and frequent opportunities to observe others using them- promote physical exercise.”

The dry language of a textbook contains the seed of sidewalks benches and bakeries, or what Peace described as “short distances strung together with staging posts.”  It is facilities of all sorts set up so seniors can walk to socialize and intellectualize with friends and enjoy life. It is predicated on the fact humans need exercise stimulation and company to stay vibrant.

Walkways can become the first steps of the emergent Age-Friendly Cities movement, but merely in fostering walking, they are immediately beneficial. “Regular exercise is associated with a decreased chance of death disability from pathologies such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, and pulmonary disease. It is also associated with positive psychological benefits such as decreased depression and improved quality of life,” according to  LaVona S. Traywick, Ph.D., an assistant professor of gerontology in the University of Arkansas.

That’s an impressive list of benefits. There is another, deeper and more complex reason to make it easy for seniors to get out walking. Social isolation is as deadly as heavy smoking, or a lack of exercise.  It brings on depression and stokes dementias. A 2015 study co-sponsored by Harvard and AARP estimated Medicare spent $6.7 billion annually on costs associated with social isolation. That amount would buy a lot of sidewalks benches and baked goods.

Why Don’t We Just Walk There?

The low-cost low tech ground level linking of short distances using staging posts for elders meshes with movements such as the Complete Streets initiatives, that seeks to  “…integrate people and place in the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of our transportation networks. This helps to ensure streets are safe for people of all ages and abilities, balance the needs of different modes, and support local land uses, economies, cultures, and natural environments.”

 https://smartgrowthamerica.org/program/national-complete-streets-coalition/

In a relatively short time, this approach leads to walkable neighborhoods, an environment ideal for NORCs, (naturally occurring retirement communities) where longtime neighbors and friends age in place, in their own homes but also together.

Dr. Sheila Peace has studied the phenomenon and found they do not occur entirely naturally, NORCs develop where public entities plant seeds to help neighborhoods sprout. In her extensive research in Britain, she finds NORCs sprout most effectively when amenities and services are within a quarter mile of seniors and that a sense of place is especially important to elder health. “Neighborhoods  are extremely important places of aging, where going outside to interact with the material and social neighborhood is essential to wellbeing and self-identity among older adults (Peace et al., 2005)  

NORCs are just a part of what is possible. The World Health Organization has identified eight “domains” that comprehensively and expensively add up to a city being termed “age-friendly” by delineating the scaffolding of a senior-friendly locale. The eight domains are: buildings and grounds; transportation; housing; social participation; respect and inclusion; civic participation and employment; communication and information; and community support and services.  

Breaking the list down provides a logical progression and creates, in effect, a checklist to delineate areas of progress and areas needing work. So though we’ve perhaps gone a ways past the original talk of sidewalks, benches, and bakeries, we are obviously far from age-friendly cities. But at least we can start walking in the right direction.

References

      Iwarsson, Susanne, PhD et. al  “Mobility in the Outdoor Environment in Old Age” (p.175-195 Environmental Gerontology, Making Meaningful Places in Old Age, 2013,

   Peace, Sheila, PhD-“Social Interactions in Public Places, A Conceptual Overview”(p.25-46) Environmental Gerontology, Making Meaningful Places in Old Age, 2013,