Age-friendly communities and what it might mean for us in 20 years

As part of the consultation on a new strategy for an ageing population, we've invited a range of experts and specialists to write on topics of their choice.  In the following article Associate Professor Stephen Neville considers the future of age-friendly communities.

For over a decade now the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been promoting, directing and guiding the global development of age-friendly cities and communities. In 2007 the WHO developed an age-friendly framework incorporating eight important areas that contribute to a community or city being known as age-friendly. These areas relate to outdoor spaces and buildings, transportation, housing, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic participation and employment, communication and information, as well as community support and health services.

There is no doubt that the age-friendly movement is gathering momentum both globally and within New Zealand. The WHO Global Network for Age-friendly Cities and Communities recently admitted its 600th member and New Zealand’s first city, Hamilton. Hamilton joins 599 other cities and communities from 38 countries around the world, in total representing over 190 million people.

In 20 years, an increasing number of people will be living as older adults in New Zealand across each of the older age groups. This includes more people who are 85 years and over, and 100 years and older. Many people within these groups will be living independently in our communities. Alongside this demographic shift will be increasing numbers of older migrants who were born outside of New Zealand. Many of these people came to New Zealand for work and in search of a better life.

Active ageing and ageing in place, are recent additions to health and social government policies. However, in 20 years these initiatives will be well embedded within the fabric of New Zealand society. Active ageing and ageing in place are integral to age-friendly communities.

Imagining the future

Here’s my vision of what age-friendly communities will look like in 20 years’ time. Our communities will be more conducive to supporting and encouraging a very diverse group of older people to be active and engaged within their communities. Engagement for older adults will occur in a variety of forms including the use of information technology.

The present and previous governments’ commitment to ensuring New Zealand is age-friendly will be realised within all of our communities. Looking to the future, the ‘teething problems’ we are currently experiencing, for example, engaging Māori and migrant communities, will be relegated to history. Councils and communities will automatically enlist age-friendly concepts when considering changes to cities and communities.

Within urban environments the quarter acre, or even single houses on 500 square metre sections, will be relegated to how we once lived. In 20 years’ time these will be replaced with mixed and high-density housing developments. These developments will become home to more people so our neighborhoods will be densely populated, but they will never seem cramped due to clever design techniques. Social housing will be a key feature, with a variety of housing options available to foster intergenerational ageing opportunities. Urban environments will be linked by green corridors which incorporate public transport options, cycle ways and walking tracks.

In 20 years’ time older people will no longer be chastised and branded as a drain on community resources. Central and local government, as well as businesses, will value the contributions older people make to society, and the health and social care expenditures for older people will be viewed as an investment rather than a cost. Older people will be recognised for the social and economic contribution they make to the communities they live in.

Older people will be an accepted and important part of any business, whether it is in the capacity of a paid employee, unpaid volunteer or as a consumer of business services. Older workers’ skills and expertise will be sought after for important roles such as mentoring others. Ageism at all levels of government, within media and communities, will be eliminated as older adults assert their right to have the same opportunities as anyone else in society.

Lifestyle options

Here are four fictional profiles to encourage ideas about the potential lifestyles of older people in our communities.

Ivy, aged 89 years, is widowed. She was born in China and lives in a provincial city. She:

  • is able to remain living independently in her own home, with support from health and social service providers
  • is digitally connected to her family and significant others living overseas
  • goes out in her mobility scooter to the shops and to attend community events
  • is well known in her neighbourhood
  • feels included in her community and has easy access to health care.

Catherine, aged 80 years, is single and lives in a rural town. She:

  • enjoys volunteering at the local library
  • still drives and often provides transport for those who can no longer drive so they can attend appointments
  • is well known in her community and has good friends and a neighbour-based support network
  • coordinates the local garden group
  • undertakes community fundraising events.

Don and Mike, aged in their 70s, are a gay couple who live in an inner city apartment. They:

  • have a wide range of friends of all ages who they socialise with regularly
  • exercise daily, including by attending a busy inner city gym
  • undertake voluntary intergenerational work with Rainbow Youth
  • contribute submissions to the local council on issues related to inner city living
  • feel respected, valued and safe in their environment.

Marie, aged 66 years, is divorced and lives in a social housing development in a city suburb. She:

  • feels safe and secure in her housing arrangements
  • works part-time and is valued by her employer and work colleagues
  • uses reliable, frequent and safe public transport for work and pleasure
  • spends her spare time enjoying the outdoors and attending social events with friends.

Stephen Neville RN, Ph.D, FCNA(NZ) Associate Professor and Head of Nursing and Co-Director AUT Centre for Active Ageing