Posted on September 13, 2019
There’s no one formula for age-friendly.
A promising undertaking in one town could fall flat in another.
That’s why leaders of North Jersey’s age-friendly movement meet monthly for “sharing” sessions to brainstorm ideas, debate tactics and trade research and data.
In September, North Jersey leaders sought to learn strategies from Westchester County Livable Communities, an award-winning age-friendly project in suburban New York.
Launched in 2006, the Westchester County program has been cited as a model by the AARP and is widely admired for its robust multi-stakeholder partnership, which has county government officials working with businesses, service agencies and consumers to develop and fund services for older adults.
The Westchester Public/Private Partnership for Aging Services, a 501(c)3 non-profit, has raised millions to help fund a variety of innovative services, from telehealth intervention to caregivers coaching to a “neighbors helping neighbors” village program.
Officials from six New Jersey counties attended a Sept. 12 meeting, hosted by the North Jersey Alliance of Age-Friendly Communities, to hear a presentation from Colette Phipps, executive director of the Westchester program.
In the past year, officials in both Bergen and Somerset counties have announced their intention to become officially designated as “age-friendly” by the AARP. County governments are crucial partners in age-friendly community efforts because they oversee senior-services agencies, administer affordable housing assistance, operate paratransit programs and have jurisdiction over many roads and intersections in need of pedestrian crossing improvements.
Phipps had a lot of advice to offer on how county governments can work with community leaders, residents, non-profits, businesses and service agencies, first by surveying older adults on unmet needs and then by carefully “mapping” the assets that already exist in the region.
“There’s nothing more important than listening and hearing what people have to say,” Phipps said.
To help address the different needs in different parts of the county, the Westchester Livable Communities initiative has established six regional councils, whose members include representatives from community organizations, clubs and faith groups within those boundaries.
“It’s important that these councils pay attention to what’s needed in every municipality,” said Phipps, pointing out that the needs in more compact middle-class cities are far different from those in wealthier large-lot communities. “You’ve got to be flexible.”
Another key to lasting success is for counties to focus on developing more intergenerational programs and on making improvements that people of all ages can benefit from, Phipps said. “It needs to work for everyone.”
But perhaps the biggest driver of Westchester County’s progress in becoming more age-friendly is it’s formation of a public-private partnership to serve as the umbrella organization over many of its new programs for older adults.
Through that partnership, Westchester leaders are able to pool government dollars with private foundation grants to create programs that have a bigger reach.
The telehealth intervention programs, for example, are funded by about $250,000 from the county and $500,000 from a private foundation, Phipps said.
Programs operated by the partnership are also able to serve people of all socio-economic backgrounds, including many who might not be deemed eligible for county services that, due to federal guidelines, often have income caps.
“None of the programs are means-tested,” Phipps said. ”That allows us to serve more people and go to more sites.”
The partnership’s programs are also easier for the public to access because they don’t require the pages-long applications that accompany some government assistance programs. “If someone is seeking a caregiver coach, really they just need to make a phone call,” Phipps said. “We try to make it simple for caregivers, which is important because they are already doing so much.”
By Phipps’ descriptions, the challenges and opportunities of the aging population in Westchester are similar to those faced in many New Jersey counties, which also have communities with autonomous local governments, socio-economic differences, and built environments that are not well-suited to aging populations.
Leadership from a county’s government can help bridge these divides and tackle the challenges that extend beyond the border of one city or town.