Listening to Community Labeled Key to Age-Friendly Efforts

Posted on September 28, 2020

There is no one path to becoming an age-friendly community – nor one mold to use.

The age-friendly movement has footholds in urban, suburban and rural locales, sometimes encompassing a single community, other times a multi-town region. These efforts to build lifelong communities can be led by aging-services organizations, prominent community groups, or branches of municipal, county, or state governments.

“Our view is that there are many on-ramps to this highway,” said Robin Lifson deputy secretary of the Executive Office of Elder Affairs for the commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Lifson’s office works in collaboration with AARP Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Healthy Aging Collaborative to spur age-friendly efforts in communities across the commonwealth.

Representatives from all three entities spoke at the second session of the Age-Friendly Communities NJ: New Relevance virtual conference on Sept. 22.

The four-part, free series of webinars is intended to offer strategies to New Jersey leaders seeking to create or sustain age-friendly movements.

Massachusetts joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities in 2014, becoming the second U.S. state to do so.

At that time, there were only three Massachusetts communities officially committed to the movement. Now there are 70 signed on, with another 60 to 70 having expressed interest in starting their own age-friendly movements, said Antron Watson of AARP Massachusetts.

Watson attributed the strides made to the more than 30 “listening” sessions attended by more than 800 residents as well as survey responses from more than 3,600 older adults and input from 70 different organizations.

Massachusetts’ governor formed a 24-member council to address aging to shepherd the initiative, but instead of just being led by those who work in the health, aging and recreation fields, it also has representatives with other perspectives, from technology experts to educational leaders to financial services professionals.

Through these cross-sector collaborations, the governor’s council seeks to make Massachusetts the “Silicon Valley” of aging innovation, Lifson said. But at the same, the council’s role is to be a “facilitator” that shares knowledge with communities, rather than as an oversight body dictating rules and mandates that all local leaders must follow in shaping their age-friendly approaches, Lifson said.

“The closest thing to a rule that we have is to listen to your community,” said James Fuccione, senior director of the Massachusetts Healthy Aging Collaborative.

Bringing different governmental departments, business sectors, and civic groups together has led to many successes in embedding aging in all policies and practices Fuccione said. That, in turn, has led to broad community support for innovative solutions, such as a Boston suburb gaining voter support to build a new high school that also contained a senior citizen center, and to Massachusetts employers offering more flexibility to workers serving as family caregivers.

Of course, creating age-friendly programs and policies without also devising a way to measure their success would be an incomplete effort.

For that reason, the second half of the Sept. 22 conference featured presentations on how New Jersey age-friendly leaders have used a variety of metrics to gauge the impact of their efforts.

Age Friendly Ridgewood leaders Sheila Brogan and Beth Abbott outlined the methods they used to survey residents of the village at the beginning of their organizational efforts and then three years later. That survey data allowed them to determine the strides they made in raising overall awareness of the needs of older adults while also learning more about issues of concern to residents, such as affordable housing and property taxes.

Lifelong Montclair leader Katie York demonstrated the methods her organization used to evaluate the effectiveness of specific programs, such as Montclair’s revamped senior transportation program and another that uses arts programming to combat ageism.

New Jersey’s age-friendly communities receive knowledge and guidance from Rutgers University researchers, who assist them in ways to track past progress and guide future efforts.

Althea Pestine-Stevens, a postdoctoral associate at the School of Social Work, stressed the importance of community leaders closely tracking all projects and partners. She outlined a process called “Ripple Effects Mapping” – developed by the University of Minnesota’s Extension Center for Community Vitality – and described how it can be an effective tool to evaluate the inroads made in both educating about and implementing age-friendly strategies.

A recording of the Sept. 22 conference is available on You Tube.

Click here to register and see below to learn more details about the next session on Tues., Sept. 29.