Advancing Age-Friendly Means Bringing Generations Together

Posted on October 21, 2020

An exercise class with participants ranging in age from 7 to 70. Re-designed parks no longer intended to be just for kids. Community centers that don’t separate people and programs by age.

These were the images that flashed across Zoom screens during the fourth and final session of the Age-Friendly Communities NJ: New Relevance conference.

In examining past successes, current challenges, and future goals of the age-friendly movement, the conference session on Oct. 6 focused on the value of inclusiveness and how it can lead to resilient community bonds, enhanced public spaces and richer experiences for all.

“Mixing it up is the new cool.” said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a Washington D.C. advocacy group that promotes programs and policies to connect people of different ages. “Getting generations together is the way to go, and the best way that we can build strong communities and make sure people are engaged.”

Generations United is a proponent of designating “shared spaces” for young children and older adults. In the organization’s surveys, more respondents agreed that intergenerational sites and programming are better uses of local resources than spending on facilities and activities that separate age groups, Butts said in the conference session titled, “Connecting Generations and Mobilizing Communities to Action.”

New Jersey’s age-friendly communities have embraced the intergenerational mantra in myriad ways, said another speaker, Margaret Church. Church is co-project manager of Lifelong Elizabeth, which sponsors multigenerational recreational activities and a program that provides support to grandparents raising grandchildren.

In her presentation, Church outlined other generational bonding efforts undertaken by our northern New Jersey alliance: a “Repair Café” in the South Orange and Maplewood communities that features people of all ages collectively offering their skillsets to repair the community’s broken items; an internship program for high schoolers in Teaneck interested in exploring careers in geriatrics, and a college-student-led effort in Englewood to develop an age-friendly business guide.

The intergenerational bonds that North Jersey’s age-friendly communities have fostered in the last few years enabled local leaders to quickly mobilize after COVID-19 struck, with volunteers of all ages working together on food drives, deliveries and other outreach efforts to those who faced new economic struggles and health challenges, Church said.

“Intergenerational solutions have become a part of staying together while apart,“ Church said. “Despite the circumstances, bringing generations together for opportunities to interact, bond and support one another is a hallmark of age-friendly practices.”

Conference presenters offered examples of how to take an “all ages” approach to all aspects of local governing, from the design of homes and neighborhoods to the location of pedestrian paths and transportation hubs to the preservation and upkeep of parks and open spaces.

Sheena C. Collum, village president of South Orange, said her community’s collaboration with Maplewood to establish SOMA, Two Towns for All Ages, has led to new intergenerational programs and new priorities for renovations of the village’s community center and library.

Those renovated spaces will serve as intergenerational meeting spaces rather than a dedicated space for seniors, which reflects the desire that older residents expressed in surveys and planning sessions, Collum said.

Another speaker, Mitchell J. Silver, commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, described a new park design strategy that recognizes that a third of the city’s population now encompasses baby boomers or older generations.

In renovating 67 neighborhood parks in recent years, his agency’s designers strived to make sure the new plans equitably served the diverse population of the surrounding neighborhoods.

“From my perspective, equity means fairness,” Silver said. “Are we fair? Are we planning for seniors as well as children? Are we planning for multi-generations?”

Recognizing that older adults want to be able to both passively and actively enjoy open spaces, the city has added adult fitness equipment to some playgrounds as well as smoother ramps and walkways and five times more benches and seating areas. His agency also removed signs at some parks that had said, “no adults except in the company of a child.”

Silver was among the many age-friendly movement veterans to share wisdom as well as successful strategies at the four-part virtual conference hosted by The Henry & Marilyn Taub Foundation and Grotta Fund for Senior Care.

The conference ended with a final conversation among leaders from the North Jersey movement and keynote speakers from Missouri and Arizona about how age-friendly initiatives can and should move ahead in the Coronavirus era – and how these community movements can grow into a statewide effort.

Julia Stoumbos, director of aging-in-place programs for the Taub Foundation, pointed to the fact that the 11 communities in the northern New Jersey alliance regularly communicate through newsletters and social media to more than 12,000 residents and community organizations. Those growing grassroots communication efforts provide “a great opportunity for our local leaders to be change agents.”

In the hope of inspiring current age-friendly communities to keep expanding their efforts and newer communities to join in, Stoumbos and Grotta Fund Director Renie Carniol invited all conference attendees to continue the conversation.

“We hope we’ve inspired you to continue the work that you’re doing,” Carniol said in announcing a post-conference follow-up session on Nov. 10.

Click here to register for that virtual session.

Click here to watch a recording of the fourth session.