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Putting older people at the heart of urban transformation

A new project has been exploring the experience of older people living in urban places.

Ryan Woolrych explains the lessons for age-friendly communities that came out of his recent project 'Place-Making with Older Adults'.

What makes an urban place age-friendly?

The is the question we’ve been seeking to answer through our recent project, Place-Making with Older Adults: Towards Age-Friendly Cities and Communities (PLACE-AGE).

Through research in the UK, Brazil and India, we’ve been exploring how cities can be better designed to meet the needs of older adults. In the UK, we looked at the experiences of older adults living in nine neighbourhoods across three cities (Glasgow, Edinburgh and Manchester). The result is a series of recommendations for how towns and cities can become good places to grow old in.

1. Navigating the community

Many of the people we spoke to told us that getting around their community was a source of worry and anxiety. Transport, lack of crossing places, seating, public lighting, sandwich boards and garbage were raised across all of the communities we surveyed. Older adults were often taking complicated routes to get to the places they needed because of areas they had to avoid, meaning they had to plan in advance. Worryingly, many of the older adults we spoke to were restricted to their homes during certain months, with issues like poor lighting or ice and leaves acting as fall hazards. So places must provide barrier-free access for older people to navigate the community.

2. Inclusive social participation

There was rarely a lack of ‘things to do’ for older adults and many that we spoke to could name programmes and activities going on in their local community. But these did not always meet the needs of all groups – for example, more active older people, men in traditional working-class communities, and different cultural groups.

In the Govanhill area of Glasgow, for example, there was a lack of opportunities for South Asian older adults – and indeed a lack of knowledge about what these groups want from an age-friendly community. Meanwhile, men in traditional working-class communities like Leith reported an absence of community places to form social networks in old age. For others, there was a great deal of anxiety about practically accessing community settings (leaving home, getting there, negotiating access), even when information and awareness was available – which it often was not. Truly age-friendly communities must address some of these intersectional barriers at a city and community level.

The types of connections between generations that people wanted were diverse – from saying hello in the street to community-organised activities like clean-up campaigns or community garden initiatives to bring families together.
3. Housing that supports ageing in the right place

Whilst the home was a source of independence and autonomy for older adults, it could also rapidly become a vulnerable environment in old age. Support with the softer aspects of maintaining the home, like changing lightbulbs or maintaining the garden, were fundamental to helping people stay in their homes. Most older adults wanted to remain at home for as long as possible and wanted their homes to be future-proofed to enable this. But they also feared being uprooted or displaced from their community.

Rightsizing’ and not downsizing was important: this means housing provision that provides more suitable accommodation, but which should not necessarily compromise on a garden, space for guests or grandchildren to stay and for personal possessions. ‘Ageing in place’ was less important than ageing in the right place, surrounded by the social and community support needed to age well. So places must deliver housing interventions that support this.

4. Intergenerational communities

There was a strong desire for intergenerational living among the people that we spoke to: people wanted meaningful and mutual sharing of skills and expertise between older and younger people. The types of connections between generations that people wanted were diverse – from saying hello in the street to community-organised activities like clean-up campaigns or community garden initiatives to bring families together. While formal programmes were beneficial, they needed to use the right language and promote a sense of ownership between younger and older people. Too often, intergenerational contact was forced rather than based on shared interests. Policy-makers must work to make communities genuinely intergenerational.

5. A sense of citizenship

This was about being recognised and valued in the community, having public spaces that promote a sense of participation and engagement and being included in the decision-making processes at a city and community level. In designing urban areas, the voices of older people were often still seen as secondary, and rarely integrated into plans for urban regeneration and physical transformation.

As a result, many older adults felt disconnected from the types of change happening in their communities. Given the experiences of older people in their areas, and their desire to be involved in shaping their communities, we must ensure that their voices are put at the heart of visions for age-friendly cities and communities.

Parallel research is also being undertaken in cities in Brazil and India to explore lessons and policy implications, unpacking how ageing is experienced across urban, social and cultural contexts. For more information, you can contact me at r.d.woolrych@hw.ac.uk.

UK Network of Age-friendly Communities

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