Northfield sets out red chairs for older people to use at community events. Minneapolis provides exercise classes in senior residences and plans to put Nice Ride bike-sharing stations nearby.

Maple Grove gave tablet computers to residents of two senior apartment buildings, providing internet access for $20 a month. The tablets help people stay connected and help fight social isolation, said Kris Orluck, senior coordinator for the city. “Our hope is that someday [the tablet program] will be available on a larger scale.”

These arfe some of the relatively simple fixes that cities have devised, as communities around Minnesota and the country work to become more age-friendly.

Age-friendly communities are defined by the World Health Organization as places where older people can “live in security, enjoy good health and continue to participate fully in society.” WHO has been working since 2010 to encourage age-friendliness in cities worldwide. In the United States, the AARP, in affiliation with WHO, offers guidelines and tools. The Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging and the Metropolitan Council provide resources in the Twin Cities. Meanwhile, some communities are working on the issue on their own. And some aren’t working on it at all.

Age-friendliness projects typically start with a group of volunteers and sometimes city officials. They assess their community’s shortcomings, often by surveying residents, then work with leaders in local government, community groups and business to figure out what to do about them.

Changes that enhance age-friendliness “don’t have to be grandiose things — though we’ll get to those, too,” said Patty Ciernia, a member of the group Age-Friendly Northfield.

Tougher challenges

Obstacles to age-friendliness defy easy solutions. Major improvements in transportation, affordable housing and accessible health care are complex, potentially expensive and sometimes controversial.

The group Minneapolis for a Lifetime asked city officials to consider issues through an “aging lens,” said Christina Kendrick, the city’s Senior Community Specialist. A draft of the city’s 20-year comprehensive plan, presented in April, would allow construction of fourplex apartment buildings throughout the city, intended to expand affordable housing that would help older people among others. Some City Council members and neighborhood groups oppose the idea, while others support it.

Housing and transit alone are such big issues that St. Paul’s Advisory Committee on Aging is focusing just on those two areas, said Kathleen Kelso, a member and former chair of the committee.

In Northfield’s survey of residents 50 and over, almost everybody said they consider the city a good or even excellent place for older people to live. More than 90 percent hope to stay there as they age. But the survey also revealed needs for improvement, or at least better communication. Nearly all survey respondents consider flexible job opportunities important, but only 21 percent believe the jobs are out there. Home health care, reliable public transportation and affordable home repair were other areas perceived to be in short supply.

Age-friendly communities are sometimes called “livable communities” or “[Name of city] for a lifetime” to emphasize that their actions benefit residents of all ages.

But the urgency with which communities are suddenly talking about livability stems from the need to accommodate rapidly aging populations. The 73 million ironically named “baby boomers” now range in age from 56 to 72. Most are still working and active. But by 2030, all boomers will be older than 65. In the coming decade alone, Minnesota residents will celebrate more 65th birthdays than in the past four decades combined. And by 2050, almost 18 million Americans will be over 85, an age at which one in five people need help with daily activities like eating, dressing and bathing.

Theoretically, the problem could have been on planning commission agendas since 1964, the last year of boomer births and the year the first baby boomers turned 18. But concern about the issue only began intensifying in the past decade or so. Maybe communities were too busy building schools to think about developing the assisted living facilities those children could eventually need.

“It’s only recently that a huge number of people have realized that counties are going to need a huge influx in funding for services for older adults,” said Kelso.

Local differences

Small rural towns, suburbs and cities face different sorts of age-friendliness problems, said Lydia Morken, a consultant to cities working on age-friendly initiatives, including Minneapolis, Maple Grove and Brooklyn Park.

“Suburbs and rural places share some challenges, like low-density development, lack of transportation options, lack of physical proximity to anything that you need, and no way to get there,” Morken said.

Many small towns, shrinking and aging as young people leave, lack clinics or supermarkets within walking distance. Their residents often live far from Main Street. On the bright side, small towns generally feature closer relationships among neighbors and higher awareness of those who need help. But those close ties also make longtime residents especially reluctant to leave.

Suburbs have more basic amenities, but were designed for people driving cars. Sprawling subdivisions, vast parking lots, broad lawns. Strip malls and other scattered pockets of activity rather than a central gathering place. Retail, housing, office buildings and parks are spread far apart.

Suburbs, designed as a mecca for young families, have aged as those families aged.

“The school bus in my neighbor­hood used to have 25 kids standing out there in the morning — now there are three,” said Mark Carpenter, a volunteer with the age-friendly project in Maple Grove.

Older people like Maple Grove because it has spent recent decades consciously developing walkable, mixed-use environments. But many residents can’t afford homes there.

Most suburbs and small towns offer little public transportation, if any. What services do exist generally run at limited hours, require advance reservations and, with all the dropoffs and pickups, are a time-consuming way to get around — a simple grocery-store trip can take four hours. For people who no longer drive, a lack of transportation isn’t just inconvenient, it can lead to social isolation, a condition researchers have associated with a higher mortality rate, high blood pressure and Alzheimer’s.

“Transportation is so fundamental to everything,” Morken said. “People want to be independent and live with dignity as long as possible. That doesn’t change when you get older. That’s really life-changing whether you have [transportation] or not.”

Although public transit is more prevalent in cities, people who aren’t used to using it may need guidance, Morken said. And keeping sidewalks free of ice and snow is a major challenge.

Big-city efforts also involve more formality and red tape, Morken said. In smaller communities, it’s easier to gather leaders from government and other institutions.

“You also want disrupters — people who aren’t happy to leave things the way they are,” said Pat Allen, a volunteer in the Northfield initiative. “Oh, they’re loud.”

Win-win

Successful age-friendly communities are more than just comfortable for old people. They also contribute to economic growth. Active, engaged people can provide home care and child care, or start businesses. They buy more things, pay more taxes and help support those who need additional help.

“Older adults are a renewable resource,” said Morken, the age-friendly consultant. “It’s a very significant economic development strategy.”

That gives communities extra incentive to work on it. Indeed, the most effective age-friendly programs start at the local level, said Will Phillips, state director of AARP Minnesota. “There is more and more gridlock and dysfunction and inability to get things done at the federal level. Moving things forward at the local level is really where it’s at.”

Morken agreed. “Communities are on the front lines of this change,” she wrote in a report to the Metropolitan Area on Aging. “Their leadership can facilitate collective ownership and accountability for community-driven responses that help older adults live their best lives.”

And these local conversations must be intergenerational, said St. Paul’s Kelso. After all, everybody is aging, and someday the lucky ones will be old. Although aging can be an uncomfortable topic, it’s important to help younger people recognize that they also benefit when older residents age productively.

“It’s is a win-win enterprise” for everybody,” Kelso said.