A city to grow old in

May 20, 2013

I’m trying not to be a NIMBY about the tower block to be built in my street. After all, it will house “independent living units” for older people. The developer is a church and claims it must sell the units to finance construction of an adjacent nursing home. I hate that the eight-storey building will loom like a neighbourhood bully over the area’s 1920s houses and three-storey walk-ups.

But I’m fighting the Not-In-My-Back-Yard syndrome because I know my neighbourhood would be perfect to grow old in. For a start it’s still a neighbourhood with a heart (rather than a shopping mall) which is rare enough. It boasts a cluster of lively and modest-priced eateries with outdoor tables. It has a couple of corner shops where you can buy milk late. There’s a newsagency, a liquor store and, the crowning glory, a cinema. It’s close to a hospital and a university, and the buses run frequently to the city and the railway station. Unless the tower ruins the ambience and causes traffic chaos which it might, I want to stay here as I get older with all these amenities and all this life a short walk away. And I guess I should share it.

The oldest baby boomers are turning 67 this year and whether the new-age retirees will do what so many of our parents did – take the seascape or treescape option – remains to be seen. I know I don’t want to move to a small coastal town or a village in the hinterland or mountains. Some of us have seen our parents, once they hit their 80s, forced to beat a retreat back to the cities for good hospitals and family care. Or we’ve seen parents stranded in far-flung suburbs, struggling as they aged. The transport is hopeless, social isolation becomes a problem, and the fast-paced city is a place they avoid.

It’s a challenge to make a city “age-friendly.” But around the world many cities, faced with the prospect of burgeoning numbers of older people, are exploring ways to become kinder and gentler places. In 2007 the World Health Organisation kicked off an age-friendly cities movement, and it might surprise you that New York City is one of the stars in the firmament. When I lived there in the 1970s it was the best place to be 22, a tough place to be 62, and surely a dreadful place to be 82. Crime, graffiti, and street homelessness plagued the city; it was exciting but aggressive. The first time I ordered a sandwich in a crowded deli, people in the queue heckled me for procrastinating over the choice of bread. (As a Perth girl I knew only white or brown then). But now New York City is becoming so darn age-friendly, it’s a haven for retirees.

For a start, it’s given pedestrians more time to cross at hundreds of intersections by re-timing the signals. It’s turned boring old senior citizen centres into art spaces. Instead of older people playing bingo, they get lessons from artists who in turn use the workspace for free. Declining crime rates mean older people are less afraid to go out; 3000 bus shelters have been fitted with seats and 1000 benches placed around the city, and more public toilets, too; and fewer elderly pedestrians are being killed thanks to a concerted safety campaign.

In Australia, the age-friendly cities movement is slowly gathering steam. Canberra and five other city councils – though not the major capitals – have joined the World Health Organisation’s network. They’re using the WHO research tools to find out what’s preventing older residents from participating fully in their communities and what can be done about it. One of the councils is Melville which covers the Perth suburb I grew up in. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was your typical post-war housing development where armies of children ran amuck while young mothers played tennis. Now it’s an area with a higher-than-average population of over-60s.

There’s a long wish-list arising from Melville’s forums with its residents aged 60-plus: from better bus services to more respectful retailers. It’s not surprising the council has picked up cheaper do-able items – running IT classes, and groups on home safety. But the big issues like public transport and seniors housing are beyond its powers. Even a measure adopted by Toronto – increasing the font size of street signs – is not on the radar. Still Melville is a beacon among Australian city councils. In July, John Beard, director of the WHO’s Department of Ageing and Life Course, will visit Sydney to tell us more about age-friendly cities at a conference held by the Centre  for Excellence in Population and Ageing Research (CEPAR).

What would it take to make your city, suburb, or town age-friendly? From bus drivers that wait for the elderly to sit down before taking off, to restaurateurs that turn the music down, to community transport that takes people to the theatre not just the doctor, I could add endless items to the wish-list. Even in my neighbourhood, there’s room for improvement: piles of perilous pavement lie in wait for the newcomers.

What are your thoughts?

Coming of Age is updated every Monday. But look out for a special report Thursday afternoon.