Nationwide, 10,000 people turn 65 every day. Here in North Carolina, 17 percent of the state’s population is expected to be 65+ by 2020. In a city increasingly known for its booming urban development, breweries and bike paths, how will Charlotte accommodate the needs of an aging (and still active) population?
That was the question on the table yesterday at a panel discussion at Aldersgate Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC). The event titled “Community Conversations: A Coming of Age” featured Aldersgate President and CEO Suzanne Pugh, AARP N.C. Associate State Director Mike Olender, Leading Age President and CEO Tom Atkins and Dean of the UNC Charlotte College of Health and Human Services Dr. Nancy Fey-Yensan.
Solutions to creating an age-friendly community range from top-down policy change to a grassroots change in attitude about who “old people” are and how they should behave.
“It’s important to demonstrate the heterogeneity of older people,” said Dr. Fey-Yensan. “If you drop us all into a very large 60 to 99 age bracket, we are different across the board.”
Added Pugh, “A generation of activists is coming of age and they will not live in a community of people who look just like them.”
As Americans live increasingly longer, healthier and more diverse lives, many will seek to connect more with their communities, remain physically active and sometimes even work well beyond retirement age. But not without some accommodations.
As one audience member pointed out during the Q&A, “We’re not looking for someone to take care of us. We’re just looking for the freedom to take care of ourselves.”
A lot of that freedom starts with the city’s infrastructure, from sidewalks to skyscrapers. “All the development right now is geared towards millennials,” said Olender. “All these high rises are going in Uptown. Where do I fit in that?”
If the urban center is designed for a younger population, Olender warns that may leave affordable housing “out in the sticks” without access to the public transportation, healthy food and employment opportunities aging populations need to stay engaged in their communities.
Does creating an age-friendly community mean investing in costly infrastructure changes that only benefit the aging population? Not exactly. A more appropriate term might be age-neutral, a place designed to ensure that every citizen can thrive regardless of how young or old they are.
“It’s just as important for someone over 65 to get safely across a crosswalk as it is for a young parent pushing a double stroller,” said Olender. “Things that make life better for older people generally make things better for everyone.”
Unfortunately, this panel was preaching to the choir. The audience, made up of Aldersgate residents, already understands the problem and has ideas for the solution. The question is how to get that young parent pushing the double stroller or the single guy slamming beers at the breweries to look up and notice that their parents and grandparents are aging into a community ill equipped to accommodate their diverse needs and lifestyles.
“Intentionality is really key,” said Pugh. “We need opportunities for young people to see how awesome old people are, to see that the generational gaps aren’t so wide and the gifts are immeasurable.” Mentor programs, she said, are a great way to build a relationship that centers not on caring for older people but on caring with them for community projects.
Retirees aren’t so unlike our millennial audience. They’re active and social. They’re concerned about transportation and parks and diversity. They play in the Charlotte Senior Softball League. They have a lot to offer the community and young people. “The elder is an incredibly valuable resource,” said Pugh.
Ultimately though, the panel and audience at this event didn’t hang on the dire need for help from younger generations, only the desire to be understood by and continue engaging with them.
“You have to believe that you can do these things, that you can make a difference,” said Atkins. “We have to have the confidence that we can make a difference.”