The World Health Organisation’s campaign to create a global network of “age-friendly cities” - with easy access to buildings and facilities, better public transport, underpinned by slower paced and stronger communities - is gathering support. But during an age of austerity and continued cuts, is it realistic to expect UK local authorities to invest in a set of principles that look to have a potentially vast price tag?
Progress has to be made, however, because the challenge is both clear and unavoidable. As the benefits of improved lifestyles and healthcare over the past century take effect, entire societies will change. Latest projections suggest there will be 5.5 million more ‘older people’ (over 65s) in 20 years’ time, with the population of older people projected to almost double by 2050 to 19 million. Despite the negative voices, this can be an opportunity - as long as we are prepared to evolve along with the changes, and allow older people to play a full role in their communities for as long as they want to.
The fact is local authorities can make a great deal of progress without the need to ringfence and commit large-scale new spending. Attitude and awareness are more important. Age-friendly issues should be put at the heart of all planning and decision-making, particularly in the areas of outdoor spaces and buildings; transport; housing; participation and employment; communications and health services.
The shift doesn’t necessarily need to involve new investment and projects, but make sure existing plans and spending are tailored appropriately.
A low-cost first step is to ensure you’re listening to older people about their city, what’s working and what’s not.
Make sure older people have enough time to cross the road at pedestrian crossings, and that pavements are repaired well to prevent trip hazards. Work in partnership with organisations in city centres.
For example, in New York City, businesses in central locations give older people access to toilets and places to rest - something identified in research as a major factor in encouraging older people to spend more time in city centres. They’re also making school buses available during the periods when they’re not in use, taking advantage of spare capacity in services which are already paid-for.
We have become used to the idea that towns and cities should be made attractive to the young, to make them truly ‘alive’ and attractive for families. Increasingly this perception is going to shift, and the thriving centres of the UK will be those that make full lives possible for people of all ages.
Dr Christine Broughan, co-director, Age Research Centre, Coventry University
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