Liveable Communities

Article excerpt

Communities that strive to improve the quality of life for their older residents benefit in many ways. The span of age groups is retained, and the supportive environment enriches the lives of the young.

Many of the 34 million Americans over age 65 share with younger adults certain basic needs - housing, transportation, shopping, and leisure. But the finer details, those that give shape to a "liveable" community, may be different for older people, who are most concerned with the safety in their homes and on the streets, the accessibility and convenience of public transportation, the presence of neighborhood shops, and the maintenance of sidewalks and streets.

Patricia Pollak, an associate professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management, has created a guide to help communities consider the needs of its older population. Titled Liveable Communities, the guide "is a tool to raise awareness in communities about how well continued independence for seniors is supported," she says.

Municipal officials, service organizations, homeowners associations, and civic groups can use the guide to look at their communities and identify strategies to improve the municipal quality of life for older people.

It's a worthwhile effort. The U.S. Bureau of Census expects the number of people over age 65 to double by 2050, when as many as one in five Americans could be called "older."

What makes a community more "liveable" for seniors? Pollak's guide designates six areas that together can provide municipal support for the independence of older residents: public transportation; driving; walking; shopping; municipal features and services and leisure facilities; and housing. She hopes communities will use the guide to examine each of these areas from the perspective of its elderly residents.

Looking at public transportation in a community, for example, includes consideration of bus fares, the lighting and safety at bus stops, the legibility of bus schedules and maps, and the availability of transit service. For many older people who no longer drive, public transportation - whether a subway system, light rail system, or community bus system - is the only way to get around.

"For many seniors, if their public transit system doesn't run after five o'clock or on weekends, then participating in social activities - concerts, theater, visiting a friend, or going out to dinner - is impossible," Pollak says.

Likewise, evaluating driving and walking in a community should raise questions about the ability of older residents to move about safely and easily. Are there sidewalks and pedestrian crosswalks? Are they kept free of snow, ice, and other hazards? Are street signs present and visible to guide people through neighborhoods? Does the community have handicapped parking?

"And more critically, is it enforced?" Pollak asks.

For most people, shopping is a necessity; for others, it's a social activity. A look at shopping in the community should include consideration of the location of grocery stores, banks, dry cleaners, and drugstores. The proximity of neighborhood shops is especially important to older people. And after older people arrive at local stores, owners can make shopping a pleasure by offering special services, such as carryout assistance, delivery service, and motorized shopping carts.

An evaluation of the community's municipal features and services and leisure facilities calls for a range of considerations, including crime prevention, recreational facilities, and municipal amenities. Does the community have neighborhood police stations? Do local agencies perform in-home safety checks for older residents? Are there programs such as Meals-on-Wheels, where volunteers deliver food to older people, and Friendly Visitor, where people visit homebound elders? Are parks, swimming pools, golf courses, and tennis courts open to the public year-round? …