The Salem News
---- — Recently, I led a discussion with a group of older adults asking their opinions about whether or not they considered Beverly to be age-friendly. Using a template developed by the World Health Organization, the participants weighed in on eight age-friendly dimensions: outdoor spaces and buildings, transportation, housing, respect and inclusion, social participation, civic participation and employment, communication and information, and community supports and health services.
The participants understood that the age-friendly concept did not necessarily single out the elderly living in the community but rather that decisions made for infrastructure improvements and new development take into account what is best for the entire population. For example, wide sidewalks with curb cut-outs are helpful not only for wheelchairs and walkers but also for baby strollers and families, and adequate nighttime lighting is good for seniors with vision impairments and also good for college students and restaurant patrons who frequent the main streets after dark.
So, what did we learn from this group of socially responsible participants? Of the attendees, four lived in their own homes, and the others lived in senior or subsidized housing. Most felt squeezed by housing costs, and affordability became one of the buzzwords of the discussion. The homeowners seemed to realize that they needed help with yard work, snow shoveling and home maintenance, but short of help from kind neighbors or younger family members, most were left puzzled on how to find the right help at the right time.
Another topic of discussion had to do with engaging the restaurants and retailers in promoting specials during the time of day older adults are most likely to be out. They were happy to leave late-night dining to the younger set but wanted an opportunity to dine out and enjoy special menu prices between the hours of 4 and 7 p.m. They would love more businesses to be based in the downtown area, and all agreed that more business activity would be good for the entire community. Personally, I’m dreaming of a Trader Joe’s-like outpost, and a friend is hoping for a soup-and-bread bakery! Families, college students and elders would all enjoy these types of new additions, don’t you think?
Some attendees suggested that customer service was inconsistent. A business may have a motorized scooter available for older or disabled customers, but store staffers and other shoppers were often downright rude when encountering that motorized vehicle in the store aisle. I bet if we asked teens in Beverly, they would be able to tell us which stores were age-friendly toward them and also those that were not welcoming to their age group.
Respect and social inclusion is an important part of an age-friendly community. Next time your organization, faith community or group gets together, look around at the participants and think about which age group might be missing. In many cultures, the wisdom of the elders in the community is cherished. In America, that is not always the case. Could Beverly citizens pledge to change the paradigm and improve the way in which older citizens are treasured and treated?
There were complaints that primary-care doctors order diagnostic tests and schedule these at out-of-town satellites. Non-drivers are challenged in finding a ride to these destinations. Most felt that the healthcare institutions requiring a patient to go out-of-town should somehow be footing the bill for transportation. Others complained of businesses with heavy doors, too many stairs and narrow aisles that were just impossible to navigate. The condition of the sidewalks was universally described as poor and not safe for either children or older adults.
Perhaps the strongest message of the day had to do with communication and information. Many voiced that they do not have access to new technology, including computers or smartphones. They wanted to know where they could learn about both community issues and upcoming events. None in the group knew of the new programming underway at the Larcom Theatre, and many said they loved the North Shore Music Theatre, but they did not know if tickets were discounted for seniors or transportation available to that venue.
As the director of the Beverly Council on Aging, I meet so many people who are in denial about the age at which they consider themselves to be an older adult. I understand this sentiment, because in spite of the advancing years, we are still the same “self” inside. We want to be doing the same things we have always been doing, we want connections, we want to be involved, and we don’t want to be left out. We want our community to find a way to include us and adapt for us as we age. We want to age in place. We love Beverly, and we want to know that Beverly loves us right back.
The community we live in today was created by the generations that went before us. In order to continue to improve and make progress toward an age-friendly community for all citizens, we must be willing to be socially active and responsible for the changes we would like to see. From my perspective as the director of the Beverly Council on Aging, the tsunami of baby boomers predicted to come of age during the next two decades is a very good reason to be discussing the notion of an age-friendly Beverly.
To the readers of this opinion piece, I will throw out the gauntlet. Write your own list of the “top five” age-friendly features of the Beverly community and also your ideas for the five features that we need to improve upon or add to be considered “age-friendly.” Send your thoughts to: email@example.com or to the Senior Center at 90 Colon Street, Beverly, MA 01915.
Mary Ann Holak is the director of the Beverly Council on Aging and Senior Community Center.