Cities face a silver tsunami: Aging citizens
A school bus drops off seniors at an East Harlem market May 10, 2011 in New York. School buses that sit idle between their morning and afternoon runs now transport senior citizens to the marketplace and other senior events under New York City's "Age-Friendly NYC" program. / AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
NEW YORK America's cities are beginning to grapple with a fact of life: People are getting old, fast, and they're doing it in communities designed for the sprightly.
To envision how this silver tsunami will challenge a youth-oriented society, just consider that seniors soon will outnumber schoolchildren in hip, fast-paced New York City.
It will take some creative steps to make New York and other cities age-friendly enough to help the coming crush of older adults stay active and independent in their own homes.
"It's about changing the way we think about the way we're growing old in our community," said New York Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs. "The phrase 'end of life' does not apply anymore."
Noting initiatives such as using otherwise idle school buses to take seniors grocery shopping, the World Health Organization recognizes New York as a leader in this movement.
But it is not alone.
Atlanta, Georgia, is creating what it calls "lifelong communities." Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is testing whether living in a truly walkable community really makes older adults healthier. In Portland, Oregon, there is a push to fit senior concerns such as accessible housing into the city's new planning and zoning policies.
Such work is getting a late start considering how long demographers have warned that the population is about to get a lot grayer.
"It's shocking how far behind we are, especially when you think about this fact: that if you make something age-friendly, that means it is going to be friendly for people of all ages, not just older adults," said Margaret Neal of Portland State University's Institute on Aging.
While this fledgling movement is being driven by nonprofit and governmental programs, New York aims to get private businesses to ante up, too.
Last year, East Harlem became the city's first "aging improvement district." Sixty stores, identified with window signs, agreed to put out folding chairs to let older customers rest as they do their errands. The stores also try to keep aisles free of tripping hazards and use larger type so signs are easier to read. A community pool set aside senior-only hours so older swimmers could get in their laps without faster kids and teens in the way.
On one long block, accountant Henry Calderon welcomes older passers-by to rest in his air-conditioned lobby even if they are not customers. They might be, one day.
"It's good for business, but it's good for society," too, he said.
The size of the aging boom is staggering. Every day for the next few decades, thousands of baby boomers will turn 65. That is in addition to the oldest-old, the 85- to 90-somethings whose numbers have grown by nearly one-third in the past decade, with no signs of slowing.
By 2050, 1 in 5 Americans will be seniors. Worldwide, almost 2 billion people will be 60 or older, 400 million of them over 80.
That is almost always viewed as a health issue, preparing for the coming wave of Alzheimer's, or as a political liability, meaning how soon will the government's Social Security pension program go bust?
"We think this is something we should be celebrating," says Dr. John Beard, who oversees the World Health Organization's Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities. "They need to live in an environment that allows them to participate."
In East Harlem, a yellow school bus pulls up to a curb and 69-year-old Jenny Rodriguez climbs off. The bus already had dropped a load of kids at school. Now, before the afternoon trip home, it is shuttling older adults to a market where they flock to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Rodriguez usually goes shopping on foot, pulling along a small cart. It can be a hike. Supermarkets are not common in this lower-income part of the city, and there is less to choose at tiny, pricier corner bodegas.
"You can only buy so much. Some streets, the cracks are so bad, you're pushing the shopping cart and almost go flying," Rodriguez said, examining sweet potatoes that she pronounced fresher and cheaper than at her usual store. "This is so much easier."
More than 200 times, school buses have taken older adults from senior centers to supermarkets in different neighborhoods. It's just one of a variety of initiatives begun in 2009 by the New York Academy of Medicine and the city's government to address the needs of older residents. Already, they're showing results.
A city report found the number of crashes has dropped at busy intersections in senior-heavy communities where traffic signals now allow pedestrians a few more seconds to cross the street.
Benches have been placed in nearly 2,700 bus shelters to give waiting seniors a place to rest.
The city's aging taxi fleet is scheduled to be replaced by a boxier model designed to be easier for older riders and people with disabilities to open the doors and slide in and out.
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