The Movement for Age-Friendly Cities and Communities: What is it and where did it begin?

As people and populations age, more and more responsibility has been placed on older adults to optimize their health and well-being through life style choices including exercise, nutrition, tobacco session and weight maintenance. Good advice, but it focuses the ‘blame’ for the’ costs of aging’ on individuals. Too often the responsibility of governments and communities to create social and physical environments that allow optimal aging is neglected.

Population aging raises many questions for policy makers on how to provide for the needs of the aging population and older individuals. In 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) published Active Aging: A Policy Framework where they defined active aging as “ the process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance the quality of life as people age.” This concept informed the Second United Nations World Assembly on Ageing held in Madrid Spain that was attended by over 150 countries worldwide. At this assembly, Governments from around the world adopted an International Plan of Action on Ageing, 2002, to respond to the opportunities and challenges of population ageing and to promote a society for all ages. In Canada this led to Special Senate Committee on Aging report titled Canada’s Aging Population: Seizing the Opportunity (2009) which was followed by a Government of Canada response.

In 2006 the World Health Organization (WHO) introduced the concept of age-friendly cities to refer to “an inclusive and accessible urban environment that promotes active ageing”.   Age-friendliness is defined in terms of a eight domains of life that span the physical and social environment including outdoor spaces and buildings, transportation, housing, communication and information, respect and social inclusion, community support and health services and opportunities for social participation, civic participation and employment. 33 cities from 22 countries world-wide, including 4 from Canada, took up the challenge   to become age-friendly in phase one of the WHO age-friendly cities project. More recently the initiative has been renamed to become age-friendly cities and communities to be inclusive of smaller and rural communities. Public Health Canada has played a leadership role in supporting the age-friendly communities initiative in Canada and   hundreds of Canadian communities are now engaged in age-friendly planning including about 50 in Ontario. The Ontario Seniors Secretariat has published a resource guide to help communities become age-friendly titled Finding the Right Fit Age-Friendly Community Planning that can be found on their website. Municipalities can apply to become part of the WHO Global Age-friendly Cities and Communities Network if they commit to a three step stage process of planning, implementation and evaluation.

The Hamilton Council on Aging began their work to making Hamilton age-friendly in 2008 speaking with older adults across the City of Hamilton on the barriers to age-friendliness in their community and making 92 recommendations to address these barrier . See Hamilton a City for ALL Ages and Hamilton a City for ALL Ages: Three Years On; both reports are available on the HCoA web page. The WHO suggests that the route to an age-friendly community is through the development and implementation of a community wide action plan. The Hamilton Council on Aging and its community partners are currently working with the City of Hamilton on the development of an age-friendly action plan. We are in the process of consulting with older adults across Hamilton as well as key stakeholders in the various domains to ensure that we come up with a set of workable recommendations. A copy of this plan will be available on our website early next fall.

Dr. Margaret Denton is a Professor of Health, Aging & Society at McMaster University and a founding Board Member and Past President of the Hamilton Council on Aging.

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