In 2010, London, Ontario became the first Canadian city to join the World Health Organization's (WHO) Global Network of Age Friendly Cities. Since then, over 1100 cities and communities worldwide, including 95 cities and communities across Canada, have joined the WHO’s age-friendly network.
What Is an Age-Friendly City?
According to the Journal of Aging Studies, age-friendly communities are spaces that value and actively engage older adults: They provide supports, services, and opportunities that enable aging in place and quality of life. However, older adults are not the only demographic who benefit from age-friendly spaces: caregivers, parents with strollers, and individuals with disabilities also benefit from accessible services. Aging is a life-long process, and ensuring communities work for older adults has ripple effects for individuals and families across the lifespan.
In order to determine the needs of older adults globally, WHO developed a participant-led research initiative resulting in Global Age-Friendly Cities: A Guide. WHO collaborated with 35 cities across the globe, resulting in 33 focus groups consisting of older adults and their caregivers. These groups determined 8 major elements that contribute to age-friendly cities:
1) Outdoor Spaces and Buildings
Older adults identified a number of aspects of outdoor spaces and building design that impact their daily lives, many of which we take for granted in a number of developed communities. Seemingly minor details can determine whether an individual is able to run errands, attend an appointment, or enjoy the outdoors. Older adults appreciate quiet and well-maintained green space; they require areas to safely rest while out walking, shopping, or waiting for public transport; they require safe pavement that is smooth and non-slip with sufficient width to accommodate wheelchairs and scooters; dropped curbs that taper off to the road and sidewalks clear of obstructions ensure older adults are not barred from independent travel and reduce the risk of falls; pedestrian crossings should provide adequate time for an older adult to safely cross the road without fear of oncoming traffic. Ramps, elevators, wide doorways and passages, non-slip flooring, rest areas, accessible washrooms, and clear signage ensure older adults can comfortably navigate public buildings.
According to the WHO, being able to move about a city impacts an individual’s social and civic participation, as well as their access to community and health services. Gaps in availability and access to public transport are common barriers for older adults as they attempt to navigate their communities. Affordability is a common issue, as is reliability and frequency of vehicles. A lack of vehicles traveling to and from key destinations such as residential buildings (for example, retirement communities) and hospitals, particularly outside of the downtown core, makes travel arduous for many older adults. Another important aspect of transportation is the courtesy and patience of drivers, who many older adults report take off before an individual is seated, resulting in frequent stumbles and falls. Many older adults avoid buses for this reason.
Housing that allows for independent, comfortable, and safe aging is universally valued by older adults. Unsurprisingly, affordability influences the quality of life for older adults in urban centres -- a high cost of living often contributes to forced relocation in the face of set incomes and increased needs. The affordability of essential services is key to maintaining a high quality of life: water, heat, electricity, and other utilities should be universally affordable in an age-friendly city. The design and layout of homes also contribute to older adults’ ability to age in place: railings, alternatives to stairs, wide hallways and doorframes, and the ability to manage the temperature are all factors that allow individuals to age in place. The ability to modify and maintain these features is integral to staying in one’s home as long as possible, as is access to services and community/family connections.
4) Social Participation
Even with a range of social opportunities available to older adults, these opportunities are of little value unless they are accessible. Older adults cite location, time of day, affordability, and ease of admission as potential barriers to social participation in community events. Older adults suggest that events are well communicated including accessibility and transportation options and that they address social isolation through personal invitations, universality (no special skills required), and efforts to engage socially isolated seniors through home visits, telephone communication, and mailing lists. Older adults also note that they appreciate the opportunity to mix with other generations, cultures, and communities.
5) Respect and Social Inclusion
Age-friendly cities operate from a lens of inclusion, courtesy, and respect. This extends beyond age, demonstrating the value of all cultures, gender, sexual orientation, race, health status, and economic status. Individuals participate in society to the extent that they experience inclusion. By centring different worldviews in education and community development, and providing cross-generational encounters and experiences, age-friendly communities thrive.
6) Civic Participation and Employment
Older adults appreciate opportunities to continue to contribute to their communities beyond retirement. Opportunities to volunteer or remain employed are key aspects of age-friendly cities. This requires organization and flexibility on the part of coordinators and employers who need to take the physical, economic, and transportation needs of older adults into account. Adapted sick leave, re-training, and accessible spaces, resources and tools all allow older adults to contribute to organizations on a voluntary or paid basis. Civic participation is often limited for older adults. Age-friendly cities take transportation, safety, and comfort into account when developing civic events and groups. Reserved seating, improved communication, and coordinating transportation decrease barriers to civic participation for older adults.
7) Communication and Information
Systematic public distribution of information through government and volunteer organizations is considered an age-friendly feature. Like anyone, older adults value communication of practical information that meets them in their daily lives. For many, this means accessing information through community centres, stores, public services, doctor’s offices, libraries, and clinics. The design of this information is crucial: A key barrier to information gathering is text that is too small, auditory information that is spoken too quickly, and jargon-filled forms presenting unfamiliar language. In the age of COVID-19, information may be relayed through mail and telephone services, specialized columns in newspapers, and radio and television programming. The most valued form of communication, however, is word of mouth through personal, informal connections. Older adults appreciate direct communication through family and friends, clubs and associations, and places of worship.
8) Community Support and Health Services
Access to health and community services is fundamental to age-friendly cities. Easily accessible and well-located services; accessibly designed offices and clinics; wide-spread advertising of available services; and warm, friendly service providers are all listed as key aspects of age-friendly community support and health services. A wide range of services, both in the community and in-home are valued by older adults, from help cooking and shopping to nursing and medical support. As affordability is a common barrier, older adults suggest a focus on clear, organized information on affordable services, and a wealth of volunteers of all ages to fill gaps in care.
Maggie Clapperton is a social worker and content creator at Homecare Hub.