Cities and Their Mayors Can Change the Future of Aging in America

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A growing number of U.S. mayors are stepping up and demonstrating vision as they plan for a new demographic future.

(Getty Images)
Demographers know that the U.S. population is aging at an unprecedented pace. One in five Americans will be 65 or over by 2030 as the nearly 80 million baby boomers age. (Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Paul Irving.

Nearly 90 percent of older adults want to remain in their homes and communities, according to the AARP. More than 80 percent age 65 and over now live in metropolitan areas. Clearly, enabling Americans to age with dignity, opportunity and support is a central issue for the future of our urban environments.

With a federal government hamstrung by partisanship and politics, cities and their mayors are on the front lines. That might just be good a thing. After all, cities are labs for ideas and incubation. They are economic engines and enablers of purpose. They are places where innovation happens.

A growing number of U.S. mayors are stepping up and demonstrating vision as they plan for a new demographic future. Their ground-level experience with change opens the door to solutions that can be replicated at the state, national and global levels.

More and more mayors appreciate that age-friendly environments improve quality of life for all. These environments foster individual well-being and impede age-associated decline. When they enable aging adults to prosper as consumers, workers, learners and volunteers, the public health, economic and social benefits accrue not only to them, but to younger people and the broader community as well.

More mayors are promoting changes in policy and practice. They are creating agency-wide understanding and embedding consideration of aging adults into planning processes, seeking age-friendly results as they seek to innovate for the benefit of all residents.

Progress is happening, but more can be done. More can be done to optimize health and security as well as engagement and productivity. More can be done to expand housing and transit options, social services and opportunities for education, work and interaction. More can be done to capitalize on innovative technologies and communications solutions that allow people to age independently in their homes. In the face of funding challenges, even comparatively small steps can make a difference.

Mayors can ensure that older residents contribute to the economy and strengthen society, applying their abilities to keep their cities vibrant. They can acknowledge that older adults offer wisdom and experience that enriches families as well as business, educational and social institutions. They can encourage mentoring, training and intergenerational connection in workplaces. They can elevate awareness that older entrepreneurs boost economic growth and that encore careerists and volunteers contribute to society’s well-being. Rather than focusing on the stereotypes of decline and disengagement, mayors can recognize the potential of older adults as assets rather than burdens.

Nationwide, more than 100 communities representing more than 53 million people have joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities, an affiliate of the World Health Organization’s global Age-Friendly Cities and Communities Program. The World Health Organization’s checklist of age-friendly attributes – in categories such as outdoor spaces, respect and inclusion, civic and social participation, and housing and transportation – provides valuable guidance to mayors and their staffs.

As the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging prepares to release the latest version of its widely followed “Best Cities for Successful Aging” index, its Advisory Board is once again calling on U.S. mayors to sign the Mayor’s Pledge. This non-partisan initiative asks mayors to commit their ideas and efforts to make their communities work well for their aging populations while enabling older residents to work toward a better future for all. The upcoming “Best Cities” report will publicly recognize mayors who sign the Pledge, joining their colleagues in civic leadership across the country to promote purpose and well-being in their communities.

The Pledge presents a unique opportunity for cities and their mayors. At a time when public institutions and officials face troubling challenges, leaders who sign the Pledge demonstrate welcome dedication to improving the lives of today’s older adults and of generations to come.

Paul Irving is chairman of the Center for the Future of Aging at the Milken Institute and distinguished scholar in residence at the University of Southern California Davis School of Gerontology.