Making aging easier in D.C.

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Barbara Ruben

Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray joins other residents in a block-by-block walk that combs the city for problem areas — from cracked sidewalks and broken street lights to boarded up buildings and dangerous street crossings — as part of the Age-Friendly D.C. Initiative. Washington is one of about 40 U.S. cities working to achieve the Age-Friendly designation, conferred by the World Health Organization on urban areas that have taken steps to make life safer and more comfortable for older residents.
Photo courtesy of Age-Friendly D.C.

When residents of the Residences at Thomas Circle, a senior community in downtown Washington, try to navigate the traffic-clogged streets to walk to a nearby CVS, they often get marooned on a small island of pavement halfway across busy 14th Street. The light’s timing doesn’t allow them to get all the way across.

For people in wheelchairs and walkers, the short trip from home to pick up prescriptions can be particularly dangerous, said Ed Duggan, who uses a motorized wheelchair.

And the street is just the first hurdle. Often, stores don’t have doors that automatically open, or a ramp that allows his wheelchair to negotiate the step up into the doorway.

But Duggan hopes these and other impediments for older adults in the District of Columbia will be lessened with Washington’s new Age-Friendly D.C. initiative. The plan is part of an international effort established by the World Health Organization (WHO) to improve the experience of growing older in urban areas.

An exclusive designation

While most jurisdictions in the Washington area, including the District of Columbia, have crafted plans to respond to rapidly aging populations [see sidebar “What’s the plan?” on page 27], the Age-Friendly City designation is one that just 40 communities across the U.S. are currently trying to obtain.

Certification entails a rigorous five-year process that focuses city leaders, businesses and government agencies on improving the elements that affect the quality of life of residents as they grow older. 

In 1950, just 7 percent of Washington, D.C. residents were 65 or older. By 2013, their proportion jumped to 11.4 percent. And while the percentage of Washingtonians 65+ is somewhat lower than in the country as a whole, it will continue to climb as the tide of baby boomers age.

“This is not a temporary blip. We are going to a new level of how many older people there will be in cities,” said Gail Kohn, Age-Friendly D.C. coordinator. “When people look at those data, they say, ‘Whoa, D.C. is going to be a different place.’”

Washington started the process of becoming an Age-Friendly City in 2012 and is now wrapping up the strategic planning stage.

The resulting plan will be reviewed by AARP’s Age-Friendly Communities program before being submitted to WHO. Then comes a multi-year implementation phase. Formal designation is forecast for 2017.

“This is a journey. It’s like accreditation,” Kohn said. Other cities in the process of being certified stretch across the country from Honolulu to Des Moines to Atlanta.

The Age-Friendly DC strategic plan will be unveiled by outgoing Mayor Vincent Gray at a press conference on Dec. 10.

Surveying every block

Getting to this point has involved months of work, led by a task force consisting of personnel from most D.C. government agencies, as well as business leaders, academics and community activists.

The effort has also involved hundreds of residents and volunteers, who have helped comb every inch of the District, walking block by block to ferret out problem areas.

Walkers made notes of every sidewalk crack that could raise the potential for falling, the location of benches, vacant store fronts and public restrooms. They surveyed grocery prices to determine if costs spiked in certain areas of the city. Others mapped out the distance between pharmacies.

Duggan, who is 68 and has multiple sclerosis, found it an eye-opening experience when he participated in a walk this fall.

“I thought I’ll just walk around the block. Everything is perfect, so there’s nothing to complain about,” he said. “But I noticed that people could get hurt. There were broken bottles and debris. I wondered why I didn’t notice it before.”

Another walk participant, who asked that his name not be used, said he is glad that the city is taking public safety seriously. In January, the 74-year-old was walking down a city sidewalk when a car backed out of a driveway knocking him to the ground.

The accident broke his wrist, but didn’t shatter his self confidence. “I fortified myself. I think it’s much less likely it will ever happen to me again. I’m so much more careful,” he said.

The participatory nature of the plan is one of its hallmarks. “I think it’s really important to get people involved who are immediately and adversely affected by some of the road and sidewalk conditions,” said Karin Slenczka, director of administrative services at the Residences at Thomas Circle.

In addition to the walks, residents of all ages have attended numerous public meetings where they have voiced their opinions on what they feel would make D.C. an easier place to age.

“[Residents] want to be involved. Having an opportunity to articulate their needs and actually be heard is very important to their quality of life,” Slenczka said.

And making sure Washington neighborhoods are walkable isn’t just an issue for older adults. “To help the older population helps everyone,” Kohn pointed out. “Walkability makes it possible to safely push a stroller or ride a trike, as well as using a wheelchair, walker or scooter.”

Among other needs identified in the forums is improvement in the availability and affordability of public and private transportation.

“Eight blocks is a measure used by the Office of Planning to make judgments about how far away public transportation can be from residents who need it,” Kohn said. “It’s clear there’s a gap, as many in the District say that three blocks [from transit] is about all they can manage. We need to reduce the distance people have to go to reach public transportation,” she said.

Businesses join the bandwagon

One facet of becoming an Age-Friendly City is recruiting local businesses to review and revamp their practices so they become more attentive to senior needs.

“We believe that businesses can play a key role in [implementing] the objectives and values of Age-Friendly D.C. We want to help the business community understand what are the best practices that exist today that help businesses reach out to and serve older customers,” said Mario Acosta-Velez, the chair of the Age-Friendly task force working in this area.

Some questions being addressed include: Is the business facility accessible and comfortable, is the lighting adequate, is the restroom usable? Are menus, signs and websites easy for those with vision impairments to read? Are senior discounts and tailored products available, and does the business publicize them in targeted media?

“We heard from seniors at the meetings that it is important for them to receive respectful and excellent customer service,” Acosta-Velez said. “When they come into a business, they want employees who are available, people who can reach items for them. They want to have a location where they can sit down to wait if needed.”

Businesses that meet the criteria will be entitled to use an Age-Friendly D.C. logo in their marketing and signage. The first businesses with the designation will be announced at the Mayor’s Dec. 10 press conference. [The Beacon will also publicize them in its January edition.]

But like the walks that will be repeated annually to see if improvements have been made, the businesses will also continually be vetted by customers.

“Is a business necessarily better just because it’s agreed to become age-friendly?, Kohn asked. “We’ve agreed to use Yelp, along with Washington Consumers’ Checkbook and Angie’s List, to get ratings from the community. You can go online and see if a particular business is rated age-friendly and then comment if you think that’s not true,” Kohn said.

Other facets of the Age-Friendly D.C. plan call for increasing social and civic participation and improving communications and information. These are areas that all Age-Friendly cities must incorporate, using the WHO guidelines. Washington added two additional areas of concern: Emergency Preparedness and Resilience, and Elder Abuse, Neglect and Fraud.

Housing is another subject area addressed by the Age-Friendly plan. Washington’s sky-high rents can be unaffordable for those on a fixed income, especially when a once inexpensive older neighborhood gets gentrified.

 “For those who do not have much income, it’s a very hard situation,” Kohn said. “People want to stay in their own neighborhoods. They don’t want to move across town. Across town is a bit like Siberia, like moving to Nebraska. You have to go to a different grocery story, a different laundromat.

“It’s best to stay in a neighborhood where you know your neighbors. What else could be age friendlier?”