Age-Friendly Leaders Reflect on Progress in Challenging Year

Posted on December 11, 2020

Pop-up barbecues in Garfield. Outdoor Tai Chi classes in Wayne. A drive-thru ice-cream social in Livingston.

None of these events were envisioned at the start of 2020, but “improvising” became an integral part of the age-friendly mission in North Jersey after the pandemic upended lives and community routines.

In some communities, that has meant rediscovering the outdoors, braving weather – and even goose droppings and fallen acorns – to help older adults safely socialize in new ways. In others, it has meant finding new ways to retool their community’s open spaces, such as a volunteer effort in New Providence to erect a deck on a piece of land outside a senior citizen complex where residents had informally been gathering on folding chairs.

While it was unfortunate that many in-person activities had to be cancelled or postponed in 2020, leaders of age-friendly communities still found ways to make progress. New local partnerships were formed. New people were served by virtual or revamped programs. And over time, new and reshaped priorities have emerged.

That was the overall message communicated as the North Jersey alliance of Age-Friendly Communities gathered via Zoom on Dec. 7 for its last meeting of this portentous of years.

Unable to meet in person and share holiday treats with one another, network leaders instead “gifted’ each other with the valuable insights and illuminating experiences they gained in 2020.
Representatives from the 16 communities that make up the alliance, along with facilitators from The Henry & Marilyn Taub Foundation, Grotta Fund for Senior Care, and Rutgers University School of Social Work shared advice of all types – from how to avoid getting “Zoom-bombed” to how to use research and demographic data to educate local decision-makers.

In many ways, the challenges posed by the quarantine and social distancing guidelines that followed the COVID-19 outbreak have served to underscore some the key messages of the age-friendly mission – that communities need to find ways to combat social isolation, bridge the digital divide, overcome communication challenges, and embrace both housing and transportation alternatives.

In addition to the new outdoor program efforts many communities planned on the fly, other end-of-year highlights shared at the Dec. 7 meeting were:

Technological Expansion The growth of new programs fueled by technology – such as the Westwood for All Ages Zoom Social Connection Hours featuring local entertainers and artists – as well as ones that seek to enable more older adults to use technology to stay connected to family, health care providers or others in the community. Age-Friendly Teaneck, for example, is working with community partners to creating technology tutorial programs that will air on the Township’s cable-access channels, while Lifelong Elizabeth has help arranged for installation of a device call Uniper that allows older adults to access video-chat and streaming services on their TVs.

Communication improvements. In the early months of the pandemic, Age-Friendly Englewood started producing a daily newsletter of updates to make up for the lack of local news coverage of the community. Officials in West Orange produced a one-page flyer on what residents should have on hand for emergency preparedness, while Age-Friendly Ridgewood produced a video to help residents learn more about a community bus program for older adults. In addition, most community initiatives in the alliance played a major role in producing and disseminating COVID information web hubs and guides.

Food Assistance/Financial Support SOMA, Two Towns for All Ages joined with other community leaders in a GoFundMe campaign to raise emergency funds for community members in need, while Fair Lawn for All Ages and other age-friendly groups organized food and supply drives or recruited new volunteers for food distribution or grocery shopping assistance to those who needed it.

Fair Lawn bag give-away

Expanded Community Partnerships As the needs of older adults – and all community residents changed practically overnight, aging advocates and age-friendly leaders saw themselves connecting with many new individuals and organizations. New Providence – Our Community for All joined with Girl Scout on a community-wide art project. Wayne officials sought help from nursing students at William Paterson University. Tri-Town 55+ strengthened its ties with a local YMCA. Representatives from 15 Englewood organizations began meeting weekly to together work to solve problems caused by the pandemic.

New Providence Community Art Project

Surveying Older Adults About their Needs. Most age-friendly initiative leaders devised ways to survey older adults about how the pandemic had exacerbated their challenges, and then shared that information with local officials. Although the pandemic created new challenges for our alliance’s four newest community members – Fair Lawn, Livingston, New Providence and Wayne – those leaders forged ahead with wider surveys, which is the first step in assessing the needs of older adults in their towns and setting priorities for these new community projects.

In addition to community leaders sharing the stories of these concrete examples of progress, Dr. Emily Greenfield and Dr. Althea Pestine-Stevens of Rutgers’ School of Social Work, shared some of their most recent data-gathering efforts on age-friendly community building and vowed to keep producing more of the research that documents the success and value of the alliance’s work.

And another gift shared at the meeting was a promise from Julia Stoumbos, director of aging-in-place programs for the Taub Foundation, and Renie Carniol, director of the Grotta Fund, to trying to persuade New Jersey leaders to make the age-friendly mission a statewide effort.

The two foundations’ desire to expand New Jersey’s age-friendly effort was a major reason behind their decision to organize a four-session virtual conference in the fall, a successful event attended by hundreds of leaders across the state and the country.

The overriding message of this final 2020 alliance meeting was clear: Despite the challenges of the pandemic, age-friendly leaders found ways to move their communities forward along the path to becoming age-friendly.