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AARP’s “Leading on Livability” Summit Offers Best Practices to Make NY a Great Place to Grow Old

AARP New York hosted its first “Leading on Livability” conference in Albany to identify and prioritize action steps as Gov. Andrew Cuomo moves to make New York the nation’s first age-friendly state.

The age-friendly movement promotes well-designed, livable communities that help people stay active and healthy and sustain economic growth. AARP is the World Health Organization’s American affiliate to help communities achieve age-friendly certification. The WHO designation would certify the commitment of the state’s government to actively make age-friendly improvements throughout its work.

To date, 163 localities nationally and 16 New York locations have attained certification, including New York City, Westchester County, Albany County, Ithaca, Elmira and Erie County. AARP says the movement can stem the tide of retirees leaving the state for more livable and affordable locales.

“New Yorkers 50 and over contribute nearly $600 billion to the state economy—what we call the longevity economy,” said AARP State Director Beth Finkel. “But in recent decades, we’ve seen a dramatic migration out of the state, creating an economic and intellectual loss. AARP convened this summit to look at the statewide and local approaches that will make New York better for people of all ages.”

The two-day conference attracted more than 100 academics, government officials, urban planners and nonprofit leaders to discuss ways the state and its communities can improve their livability.

In her keynote speech, Dr. Jo Ivey Boufford, President of the New York Academy of Medicine, said the focus on age-friendly policies can benefit the overall society. She noted that many livability policies are a result of feedback from older adults. “Changing the environment is more effective than changing behavior,” she said.

In New York City, for example, Boufford said bus shelters were redesigned to include benches and lighting, countdown clocks and restricted car turns were added at pedestrian crossings to improve safety, and senior hours were created at public pools to encourage physical activity and socialization.

Age-Friendly initiatives can encourage seniors to age in place, speakers said, but failure to adopt these policies could negatively impact the state and localities for years to come. Today, 20 percent of public retirement checks are mailed out of New York State, according to the State Comptroller’s Office.

Image of two women speaking onstage at an AARP event.

Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, Chair of the Assembly Aging Committee, told participants that “aging in place” should be thought of in a different way: “And that’s aging in style,” she said. “We who grew up in the hippie generation, we intend to live well to the very end.”

AARP’s Finkel added that failure to accommodate an aging population also would result in greater use of nursing homes, which are largely funded by taxpayers through the state’s Medicaid program. “The big argument for aging in place is you live longer and you live better, but you also stay out of institutions. That’s incredibly important for our state budget,” she said.

In a series of keynotes and panel discussions, summit participants highlighted the eight livability domains recognized by the WHO: outdoor spaces and buildings, transportation, housing, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic participation and employment, communication and information, and community and health services.

A session on down revitalization shared the successes of Capital Region to actively create age-friendly communities. Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, describing the redesign of Madison Avenue in Albany, said it involved considering the views of not only motorists, but also pedestrians, cyclists and retailers. “We all got together and reached a consensus through compromise—everyone had to give up something,” she said.

Many conference participants were intrigued by the concept of “tactical urbanism,” which advocates low-cost, neighborhood-driven and often temporary changes in the built environment to improve neighborhood livability.

Tony Garcia, an architect and principal in the Street Plans Collaborative, cited the Bloomberg administration’s plan to close off Times Square to cars, which was initially opposed by local businesses. However, a Memorial Day weekend test run showed retailers benefitted from the increased foot traffic. With the backing of the local Business Improvement District, the closure was made permanent and extended along Broadway.

Age-friendly design can also extend beyond large-scale infrastructure to the design of buildings and other parts of the physical environment that can enhance the way residents age and improve health outcomes.

Esther Greenhouse, an environmental gerontologist, said builders are often oblivious to design ideas that would enhance the livability of new buildings as residents age. “New buildings are dinosaurs,” she said. “We need to put in features so can be used across life spans. We don’t have housing that enables people to age in place.”

She said she was also leery of using the term “universal design” because it often becomes equated with design for the frail or disabled. “I prefer the term ‘enabling design,’ ” she said. “That puts the focus on the purpose, which is to build environments that enable people to thrive.”

Building on the summit, AARP will release a white paper this year focused on learnings that can support the governor’s application to the WHO for New York to become the first certified age-friendly state.

“It has to be a community-government partnership,” said AARP Livable Communities Advisor Bill Armbruster. “You want to go from a great place to grow up to a great place to grow up and grow old.”

Listen to AARP’s Beth Finkel and the New York Academy of Medicine’s Lindsey Goldman as they joined the City & State Presents podcast to discuss their push to make New York the first official age-friendly state in the country.

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