Across the country community groups, agencies and academics are talking about the urgent need to work together to create a future dramatically more elder-friendly than the one we live in today.
Certainly, ChangingAging is dedicated to this idea. At the moment I’m live-blogging from the University of Washington at a conference called “Working Together for Elder Friendly Futures” sponsored by UW Gerontology. Like many similar conferences I’ve attended in recent years this one features outstanding nationally recognized speakers and panels addressing the most pressing issues and cutting-edge thinking about building elder-friendly communities.
You’d think this is a good sign, right? Not. So. Fast.
The biggest impediment to building elder friendly communities are the nonprofits, government agencies, service providers and academic institutions themselves who are trying so hard to be helpful, said Jim Diers, author of Neighbor Power and an internationally renowned community-builder and former director of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.
The problem, Diers challenged the audience of more than 200 academics, agency and service providers, is that the way we currently treat elders or any other vulnerable population “is fundamentally anti-community.”
“We have to start focusing on people’s strengths rather than exclusively on their needs,” Diers said. “In our desire to help people we focus exclusively on what’s wrong with the community and break it up into silos according to our agenda. We separate the built environment from the natural and social environment, even though that’s not how we live. We separate our elders and our young people and people with disabilities. We can’t create community when we’re breaking it up.”
Diers challenged the audience to fundamentally rethink and reorient the way their organizations operate. He challenged them to move away from pushing programs, services and agendas and instead focus on empowering communities to draw on their own strengths to grow.
As an example, Diers described the “Aging Your Way” initiative created by Denise Klein, CEO of the Seattle non-profit King County Senior Services.
The Aging Your Way initiative has facilitated 12 community gatherings in the Seattle area in recent years that begin with residents coming together and doing an exercise asking them to imagine themselves as old. In this frame of mind, they break up into groups and brainstorm what they would want their neighborhood to look like and offer them as older adults.
“What’s amazing is that the themes of what they wanted were the same in every group,” Diers said. “But nothing they identified as a priority for their community was available or even being addressed by service-providers.”
For example, older people felt like they’d spent their entire lives accumulating skills and experiences that translated into wisdom, yet all they were recognized for was their needs. They wanted to share their wisdom with younger people but senior centers only provided social activities with other old people. They wanted access to life-long learning, they wanted to participate in the arts and access to the outdoors.
“Denise was very clear — Senior Services doesn’t have the resources to create all these programs for you. But we can help you come together and organize them yourself,” Diers said.
And that’s exactly what people have been doing with the support of Senior Services. Residents came together and formed Time Banks to exchange services and companionship. Two neighborhoods organized to join the Village to Village Network (I have to tout my neighborhood village, the PNA Village, and the neighboring NEST Village, whose director Judy Kinney is speaking here at the conference as I’m finishing this blog post), a national grassroots movement to foster aging-in-community and intergenerational connectivity. Communities have organized intergenerational dance parties, lifelong learning and opportunities to pursue crafts, cooking and the arts.
Click here for a complete list of projects and models that have been identified by the Aging Your Way initiative to promote elder-friendly communities.