This is a guest post written by Paul H. Irving, President, Milken Institute.
This month, the Milken Institute’s Best Cities for Successful Aging Advisory Committee will ask mayors across the nation to sign a pledge that promises to improve life for older adults and residents of all ages.
Cities are at the front lines in addressing the consequences of the rapid, unprecedented aging of populations in the United States and across the world. Enabling successful aging is a central issue for urban communities and municipal leaders. The Best Cities for Successful Aging Pledge unites mayors around a commitment to enhance life for the world’s largest-ever population of older adults and ensure a better future for our cities.
The Pledge acknowledges both great challenges and great opportunities for city leaders. In conjunction with the second edition of its often-cited report, “Best Cities for Successful Aging,” to be released later this year, the Milken Institute will recognize forward-thinking mayors who sign the Pledge and celebrate their efforts to promote purpose and well-being for their aging residents. The “Best Cities” report, which compares the nation’s metropolitan areas on data-driven criteria, receives wide attention in major national and local newspaper, television, radio and social media outlets.
As we initiate the Pledge, the stakes are clear. By 2030 one in five Americans will be over 65, most of them living in urban environments. Worldwide, this older age group by mid-century will outnumber children under 14, due in large measure to declining birthrates and expanding longevity resulting from medical, technical and public health advances.
In the United States, older adults increasingly concentrate in America’s urban settings, where we see the emergence of Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, or NORCs. These surroundings profoundly influence older residents’ ability to age well and enjoy healthy, engaged and fulfilling lives.
To improve lives through strengthened cities requires urban environments that are physically, economically and socially attuned to the well-being of mature residents. An age-friendly city optimizes health and security as well as engagement and productivity. It offers housing options and social services as well as opportunities for education, work, volunteerism and social interaction. These goals hold vast opportunity for our cities—and require new thinking as well as strong, committed mayoral leadership.
Too often we overlook older adults’ potential to improve society for people of all ages. We see only stereotypes of decline and disengagement. Mayors and other municipal leaders must promulgate the truth: Older residents can be an invaluable asset to their communities. We encourage government leaders to discard outmoded notions of aging that fail to consider this potential.
Older people today are healthier and more vibrant than in generations past. They have much to offer—not just the wisdom of age, but the practical experience and skills that can enrich families as well as work, educational and social settings. They offer a wealth of mentoring and training opportunities in the workforce, along with perspectives that enhance intergenerational teams. In encore careers and entrepreneurial ventures, they help drive economic growth. In education and volunteer activities, they contribute to society’s well-being.
Today’s mayors have a chance to help their communities reimagine what it means to grow older. With eyes open to 21st century reality, innovative officials can create environments that embrace the contributions of aging populations.
Through cross-agency efforts, cities will feature welcoming neighborhoods where age-friendly streets and shops encourage older people’s social engagement. Through upgraded infrastructure and communications, cities will enable people to age independently in their homes. By integrating health and social services into overall planning, cities will foster healthy aging. And through transportation and housing options, cities will promote mobility, safety and convenience, in the bargain enabling older adults to remain involved in their communities.
The role of mayors in this great urban challenge cannot be overstated. Leadership is paramount in championing a new model of aging that incorporates the many assets older people bring. Mayors’ ground-level experience with demographic transitions opens the door to solutions that can be replicated at the state, national and global levels.
Cities are economic engines and centers of purpose. Urban leaders can ensure that older residents contribute to the economy and strengthen civil society, applying their abilities and knowledge to keeping cities strong and vibrant. Our mayors can harness the benefits of longevity and embrace the upside of aging.
It’s time to make successful aging a priority in our cities. We look forward to celebrating the commitment and vision of mayors who sign the Best Cities for Successful Aging Pledge.
About the author: Paul H. Irving is president and a member of the board of the Milken Institute. Irving’s work to improve aging societies has been featured in outlets such as PBS Newshour, Forbes, CBS, NBC, CNN, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. He is the recipient of the 2014 Janet L. Witkin Award from Affordable Living for the Aging. Irving’s book, “The Upside of Aging – How Long Life is Changing the World of Health, Work, Innovation, Policy, and Purpose,” was recently published by John Wiley & Sons.