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Age-friendly community initiatives: coming to a neighborhood near you?

The saying that “It takes a village” is well known when recognizing the role of communities in promoting children’s health and human development. At the same time, there is a growing worldwide movement drawing attention to how much communities matter for people of other ages—especially adults confronting the challenges of later life.

Efforts to make communities better places for older adults (and potentially for people of all ages) reflect a growing field of research, policy, and practice called “age-friendly community initiatives” (AFCIs). In “Age-Friendly Community Initiatives: Conceptual Issues and Key Questions,” our article for the special issue of The Gerontologist in honor of the 2015 White House Conference on Aging, we define AFCIs by identifying their shared elements as follows:

  • Where: AFCIs are developed in specific geographical areas, which typically are small in size, such as a municipality, neighborhood, or even a cluster of large apartment buildings.
  • Why: AFCIs share an emphasis on enhancing older adults’ health and well-being, as well as their ability to age in place and connection to their community.
  • Who: AFCIs involve stakeholders who represent diverse sectors that influence the lives of older adults, such as service providers, transportation authorities, local governments, and private citizens.
  • How: AFCIs use a range of methods to make social and physical environments better for older adults, such as facilitating community needs assessments, creating new interorganizational partnerships, developing coalitions, and engaging volunteers.

Despite these similarities, an AFCI in one locality is likely to appear quite different from that in another. This is in part because AFCIs are purposely designed to be responsive to the challenges and opportunities that are most relevant to their geographic areas. For example, whereas affordable housing and service accessibility might be key issues for older adults in one community, social isolation and safe mobility might represent the most pressing needs in another community. AFCIs are also likely to appear different from each other because various models and networks have developed in a largely decentralized manner over the past several decades, each with a somewhat unique “flavor.” For example, some models heavily emphasize the built environment and the involvement of local government, whereas other models are more grassroots and focus on engaging the participation of older adults themselves.

Image by OpenClipartVectors. Public Domain via Pixabay.

While there are many examples of AFCIs in the United States in this searchable database, AFCIs remain more the exception than the rule when considering the country as a whole. Therefore, the primary aim of our article was to pose key questions regarding the expansion of AFCIs. We formulated these questions to accelerate research, policy, and practice on AFCIs:

What public policy support is necessary for AFCIs to flourish in diverse communities? To date, there has been limited federal support for the initiation and maintenance of AFCIs. Most public funding has been from state and city governments, and many models have been championed by private philanthropies. Given the investment of resources necessary to develop meaningful community change over time, as well as concerns that communities with the greatest existing resources are the ones most likely to implement AFCIs, public policy at the national level has the potential to more rapidly and equitably expand AFCIs. (For example, Promise Zones are a federal initiative aiming to spur community change on behalf of younger families).

How can advocates engage entities traditionally outside of the field of aging to collaborate on aging-related issues and joint agendas? At their core, AFCIs focus on cross-sector collaboration to address persistent challenges and opportunities related to population aging. However, fragmentation across professional practice, academia, health and social services, government, and philanthropy render it difficult to develop a widely shared agenda around aging. Better understanding of how to overcome these challenges and address ageism at the societal level would be helpful in efforts to expand the implementation and effectiveness of AFCIs.

How can the individual- and community-level outcomes of these initiatives be rigorously evaluated? Despite continued enthusiasm for AFCIs, there has been relatively little systematic examination of whether they yield desired outcomes among older individuals and others. More rigorous evidence regarding the extent to which AFCIs achieve their intended goals would strengthen advocacy for greater investments in AFCIs, especially in terms of public dollars.

Despite these challenges, persistent interest in AFCIs in the United States and other countries suggests that these models are intuitively appealing for addressing key issues for our aging world. By continuing to advance discussions on AFCIs—in academic journals, professional publications, policy briefs, newspaper articles, and even at dinner tables—we as a society can more deeply recognize how aging well is not simply a matter of meeting individual needs, but also transforming communities for the potential betterment of all.

Image Credit: Photo by Joe Mabel. CC BY SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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