Age-Friendly Communities Benefit Everybody

By: Debra B. Whitman

Publish Date: February  14,  2013


Debra B. Whitman
Executive Vice President for Policy, Strategy, and International Affairs  

AARP - United Nations  Briefing Series on Global Aging
February 7, 2013

Today I want to talk about an opportunity for communities and regions all over the world.


We often hear about the challenge of population aging. But there is a positive and hopeful side to this story.


By adopting what we call “age-friendly” policies, communities and governments will enhance the quality of life for all people. In addition, they can reap the benefits of increased competitiveness and economic vitality. 


Becoming “age-friendly” is really an opportunity -- for communities and countries of all sizes, all stages of development, and all parts of the world.


But before I go into more detail, I’d like to tell you a bit about AARP, and why age-friendly practices are so important to us.


AARP was founded 54 years ago, by a retired educator in Los Angeles named Ethel Percy Andrus. She was moved by the fact that health insurance companies refused to cover older Americans.


After a great deal of work, and a lot of rejection, she finally found a company that would provide health coverage for retirees.


And that was just the start. Today, AARP is one of the largest associations in the world, with more than  37 million members age 50 and over.


In the recent presidential election, one in four voters were AARP members.


That size gives us clout, and we pursue a strong agenda on behalf of older individuals, at the state and national levels.


AARP is nonpartisan, and we never endorse individual political candidates.



But we do get involved in issues that affect older Americans and all Americans. In our vision, all people live with dignity and purpose, and have the chance to fulfill their goals and dreams.  


Improving retirement security is a big priority for us.  In large part, that means preserving an effective and sustainable public pension system and social safety net, known in the U.S. as Social Security.


But it also means strategies to encourage increased personal savings and to educate people about making good financial decisions.


Our other top policy goal is improving America’s health care system. 


We champion efforts to keep health care affordable and accessible for all people. We also support strategies to contain health care costs, while at the same time finding better ways to deliver care.


In 2012, AARP engaged more than 6.3 million members in a national conversation about Medicare and Social Security, which we call “You’ve Earned A Say.”


At tomorrow’s session you will be able to learn more about  “You’ve Earned a Say” from AARP’s president, Rob Romasco.


But I’ll tell you it has been a successful effort. Engaging older persons is a critical part of our advocacy, and has been from AARP’s very beginning.


When older Americans contact elected officials, or participate in public events, or have letters published in the local paper, politicians pay attention.



I think our success in engaging millions of older Americans is a reminder that people care greatly about their quality of life.


While financial and health security are core issues for  AARP, the communities where our members live make a tremendous difference in their ability to have rewarding, engaged lives.


In order to thrive, people need to live in environments that are age-friendly.


By “age-friendly” I mean communities that optimize the well-being of all residents, from the youngest children to the oldest seniors.


Everyone needs access to housing, transit choices and health care services.


But the concept of “age-friendliness” goes deeper. 


Age-friendly communities make land-use decisions that emphasize convenience and access. They work to keep the environment clean, and public spaces safe and free of crime.  


They also recognize the dangers of isolation. Age-friendly communities find ways to promote engagement and help people stay connected.


We also believe that the principles of age-friendliness make communities more economically competitive.


They become more desirable places to live, to visit, and to spend time in. Consumers of all ages feel welcome and secure.


This is a message that business -- and governments that want to spur economic growth -- should take to heart.


A hotel, restaurant, pharmacy – practically any retail business – can use age-friendly principles to enhance the experience of their patrons.  Companies can market themselves as age-friendly to attract customers and boost sales.


But the strongest argument to adopt age-friendly strategies comes from demographics.


Globally, the population age 60 and over is doubling from 11 percent in 2006 to 22 percent in 2050. At that time, almost 2 billion people will be in their seventh decade of life.


The percentage rise among those over 85 is even more dramatic. And that’s an age when people are highly vulnerable to chronic conditions, as well as limits on mobility.


I want to emphasize: This growing population of seniors has a great deal to offer – as consumers, as workers, as neighbors, as volunteers, as mentors to younger people.


As vital and contributing members of their communities.


Why wouldn’t we want to maximize that contribution? Making the places they live more age-friendly is the key. 


To help promote needed change, last year we launched the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities.  There are now 10 cities, towns, and counties in the network, and we expect it to continue to grow this year and beyond.


Our goal is to highlight and encourage the adoption of innovative ideas and best practices to improve communities. 


And I mean all kinds of places, including sprawling suburbs, older cities, and remote, rural towns.


Regions with different economies and different traditions, communities in different parts of the country, all can adopt practices to become more age-friendly.


Our effort is in affiliation with the World Health Organization, which has done incredible, pioneering work on age-friendliness in communities across the globe. 


One of their contributions was identifying eight domains of life that optimize age-friendliness. These domains are designed to be adaptable to different settings and different cultures.


They include:


·         access to outdoor spaces and buildings and safe recreational facilities;

·         choices for transportation, housing and health care services;

·         opportunities for social participation, such as cultural, civic and public service activities; and

·         access to information technologies that help people stay connected, including people with impaired mobility.  


When you think about all these “domains,” and how beneficial they are, certain conclusions jump right out:



·         First of all, “age-friendliness” is not just about seniors.  Age-friendly communities are supportive to people of all ages.


Well-maintained sidewalks and easy to read street signs benefit not only older pedestrians with walkers, but young parents pushing strollers. Safe parks and recreational facilities benefit children and their grandparents. 


Transit options can help everyone who either can’t drive or doesn’t want to. And reduced driving means cleaner air.



·         A second point is that local decision-making is required to implement these values in a town or city.


The federal or even state government can’t lead on this. Age-friendliness is something that local communities -- often in partnership with the private sector – should shape and direct.


Because we know that each place has its own needs and priorities.


I’ll give you some real examples, from our Age-Friendly Network:


·         Philadelphia has worked to improve access to healthy food in low-income, urban neighborhoods. 


·         A much smaller town in the state of Georgia [Macon] added transportation links to improve mobility for  dispersed, rural residents.


·         Suburban Westchester County, New York has begun to make age-friendly policy recommendations for housing, health and wellness, caregiving and other areas.


·         Des Moines, Iowa now requires age-friendly considerations in its plans for public transportation.



We’ve also found that planners should seek out input from local residents.

This can help engage the population, and it leads to better results.

In New York City for example, officials assumed they should always place benches near playgrounds – until they heard from a resident who said she found it peaceful to sit in a more quiet location. Her input added real insight.

At AARP, we often use the term “livable communities” to describe places that are supportive to residents of all ages.


But whatever the phrasing, we are committed to making more people aware of the underlying principles of age-friendliness.


We’ve created a website that is filled with useful information, including tools that planners can use to assess the age-friendliness of a community.


That web address is


And through our age-friendly network with the WHO, we’re trying to leverage insights from all over the world, for the benefit of U.S. towns and cities.


One thing we’re quite pleased with is that communities in AARP’s age-friendly network will become part of the WHO network. That’s a great way for U.S. communities to act locally, but also think globally – gaining and sharing knowledge with other countries.


The last point I want to make is that the goal of making all communities more age-friendly can be challenging. But changing demographics leave us little choice.


Incorporating the values of “age friendliness” is a way to meet the needs of citizens, who deserve to live the most secure and comfortable lives they can.


It’s a way to give regional economies a boost.


Implementing these strategies is an opportunity for us all.


We look forward to working together, and learning from each other, as we meet the needs of our changing populations in the coming years.


Thank you very much.