Is the most liveable city the most age friendly?

Melbourne consistently ranks as one of the most liveable cities in the world but that doesn’t mean it’s as age friendly as it could be, according to an expert.

Melbourne skyline - by Donald Y Tong

Photo: Donald Y Tong

Kathleen Brasher, who is a member of the Strategic Advisory Group for the WHO Global Network of Age Friendly Cities and Communities, says the city wins for those who are employed, students, consumers, and travellers but its liveability for older people remains in question.

“It’s extraordinarily expensive to both live and buy housing here.”

Dr Brasher formerly held an executive position at Melbourne's Council of the Ageing, or COTA.

On a recent visit to Wellington, she says the age friendly concept  needs to be better understood so everybody who lives in a community can contribute and feel a part of it.

“When we’re thinking about liveability, the new world is five generations of people – is it liveable for somebody in their 90s right through to a very young baby learning to walk, and all the generations in between?”

Melbourne’s city council has worked closely with COTA and an older person’s advisory group to investigate and measure what it means to be age friendly.

The general public is less well informed.

“There’s an understanding there are more older people [who] need to be considered,” says Dr Brasher.

“What people tend to do still is both to think about older people as ‘others’, somehow ‘out there’ and then immediately [think] aged care – have we got enough aged care beds rather than think about the process of ageing which is 20 or 30 years.”

Small, practical steps

Dr Brasher says an age friendly community would have different generations mixing together, with everybody of all ages using parks, being out at night, attending cultural events, and taking part in further education.

There are practical ways to achieve this.

“Events are scheduled at different times in the day, price points are set at varying levels so people on fixed incomes can afford to be there, public transport includes low rider buses that wait till people sit down before they start.”

Kathleen Brasher in Wellington

Many communities have begun checking their infrastructure to ensure footpaths are wide enough and ramps are in place.

But other aspects are also important.

“It’s smaller ideas at the interface of services that older people need and value most,” says Dr Brasher (right).

“Being able to talk to people at the bank and hear a response clearly. Having some [space] set aside so staff can work one-on-one with older people to talk through any issues they have with their banking.

"Or there’s a particular teller available who will deal with an older person so they’re not standing in the queue for a long time.”

It can also be as simple as having a seat in the right place.

“So people can sit down and actually have a one-to-one with pharmacists about their prescriptions rather than talking over the top of broad counters with lots of people around them, lots of noise,” she says.

Social isolation an issue

A number of communities in New Zealand, which are developing age friendly concepts, have identified social isolation as an issue.

They are looking at ways to strengthen links between people.

While making friends can be relatively straightforward at school and work, or by being a member of a club, some people find opportunities for social interaction reduced as they get older.

Dr Brasher says it can become even harder when members of an existing social network, including family, partners or friends start dying.

Scribblers group in Martinborough cafe

“The chance to invigorate friendship groups becomes smaller.

"So people do become more socially isolated.

“The idea you’ll do everything online rather than go and visit [say the Post Office] means you’re not sitting in queues with people anymore where you can strike up a conversation.

“So there’s a whole lot of subtle ways we start to change the availability for people to just bump into each other in a way they can create the spark of a friendship and a relationship.”

Keeping socially connected is important as these friends gather to write family histories

She believes a community can make a difference with a focus on a central social point.

“If a community has a beautiful arts centre offering different classes, it would be about how can we use this as a base and maybe having a walking group coming to and from here.

“They might mingle and meet in the café so they get a chance to see other activities and other people.

“What the evidence tells us is if we organise activities that are not just about one single theme, not just about walking but connecting with some cultural activity, it works better, and when there are groups operating at the same time rather than individuals.”

Dr Brasher believes communities can become age friendly by assessing what they do well, and the areas they can improve on, big or small.

“The community itself decides what it will work on, and in what order. Not every community is going to work on all areas at the same time.

“Footpaths have a life of 20 years so to work alongside town planners to say ‘What are the steps we need to be taking to build this into your long term plan?’ is one important step but meanwhile there can be something quite small happening at the same time.

“We need to include ageing in all of our planning. We need to put the lens of ageing across everything.”

She says there needs to be senior level involvement at local government in order for it to really work.