Westchester County is the eighth largest county in New York State with a total population of about 949,000 according to the US Census 2010. Persons sixty and older represent about 20% of the county’s total population. However, those aged 85 and older are the fastest growing, with an increase population of 24% between 1990 and 2010. This increase is likely due to improved health and access to care. One in every five Americans is expected to be a senior by 2050. One in every five Westchester resident is an older adult now.
This burgeoning growth in both the numbers and proportion of aging individuals created major challenges, which gave cause to the development of Westchester County’s Livable Communities: A Vision for All Ages Initiative. The program was also the impetus for receiving the prestigious AARP/WHO designation of Age-Friendly Communities.
A PERSONAL ACCOUNT
Bishop Benoni Ogwal-Abwang, a native of Uganda who came to the United States in 1987 and moved to the Webster School neighborhood of New Rochelle in Westchester County seven years ago, says the major benefit of living in a “help thy neighbor” community is the feeling of security that he and his family have. “It’s wonderful to know our neighbors care and that our homes are safe when we’re away. There are no fears; only a feeling of security,” he says.
Bishop Ben, as he is known to his friends, cites his neighbors’ response to snow storms as an example of “village style” living. He says one of his neighbors has a snow blower that he brings out after every snowfall so area teens and adults can jointly use it to clear driveways and walkways. Equally important he adds, “This is a way of life that can be established in every part of the county. All it takes is a willingness on the part of the community residents to communicate,” he notes.
DISCOVERING COMMUNITY ASSETS
Providing a comprehensive analysis of a community’s assets is a dynamic way to become more informed about and involved in the social, economic, and cultural order. For students at Iona College in New Rochelle, it was also an opportunity to learn about aging issues in theory, and the application of research on the subject in practice. A two-day, 1 credit undergraduate course – “Community-Based Research: Formal Asset Mapping for Livable Communities” – focused on producing a database of 43 Westchester municipalities, businesses, civic organizations, health and wellness services, recreation centers and parks, and transportation operations among other formal assets.
This was an exercise in asset mapping/resource identification using the internet. While the project could have been completed at a desk with a computer and a telephone, curious students visited various programs to learn more about available services to older adults. They made suggestions about enlarging the research categories. This practicum yielded not only a database and directory, but also some 90 maps that were shared with community groups and Westchester County’s Geographic Information Systems, where they are being used by the planning department.
Thinking critically about how public and private facilities, institutions, and programs contribute to the ability of individuals to age in place, which was one of the primary objectives of the course, also invited these young adults to see themselves in the context of changing demographics, with career opportunities they might not otherwise have encountered or even considered.
STRENGHTENING COMMUNITIES THROUGH PARTNERSHIPS
Westchester County adopted the Livable Communities agenda with tremendous vigor and enthusiasm. With our many partners including AARP, we collectively brought the skills to turn a sense of mission into a road map. With vast fieldwork, research, and other resources at their disposal, AARP provided some of the critical tools to engage constituents groups into building consensus. Through community visioning, residents sat down together to work constructively to make changes in their neighborhood. Regional council meetings galvanized community stakeholders to take a step-by-step, inclusive approach to critical issues, such as mobility options and access to information. Building this age-friendly community was from the start a grassroots endeavor. It is an on-the-ground undertaking that empowers people and causes them to take ownership of their communities.
Exceptional progress has been made in the last 7 years, and the process of maintaining age friendly communities is ongoing. The partnership between Westchester County Department of Senior Programs and Services, the Westchester Public/Private Partnership for Aging Services and AARP is an expansive one in which many organizations, such as not-for-profits, faith-based and academic institutions and businesses play a part. Our goal is to create a legacy and blueprint that Westchester County can pass on to those committed to addressing generational needs.
AGE-FRIENDLY COMMUNITY ACHEIVEMENTS
Westchester County’s Livable Communities Initiative as an Age Friendly designee has achieved great success throughout the years:
· Established 9 Livable Community Connections, which are regional hubs for local grassroots organizing, programming and education.
· Involved 300 people from 43 municipalities in “visioning” exercises to explore how to enhance the livability of the local community.
· Presented well over one thousand community education seminars, forums to thousands of people throughout the county.
· Engaged 300 volunteers to evaluate the “walkability” of busy intersection in all municipalities.
· Influenced the transportation department to install several upgrades to local streets for better mobility.
· Enrolled one hundred volunteers to receive professional training to provide support to family caregivers of older adults.
· Developed caregiver program which train individuals on how to gather the assistance of volunteers to help them face their daily challenges.
· Established student think tanks for vital topics such as, mobility, caregiving and tax relief.
· Created over 190 community group county wide as “villages” where neighbors are helping neighbors.
THE FUTURE OF AGE FRIENDLY COMMUNITIES
No matter the size of your initiative the following steps are key to a successful age friendly program:
1. Make the decision that you want and need age friendly communitiesbuy-in from community stakeholders is essential.
2. Identify the assets in your community, which include the people, places and things that make it of value.
3. Sponsor community visioning through whatever structure is developed. Ask people what they want and what they see for the future of the community. Explore the community’s identity.
4. Create an organizational structure that will facilitate your efforts- this structure must be malleable and community centered.
5. Make partners of all types. In addition to partners within the aging community (AARP, long-term care providers, social service agencies), even the most unlikely partnership will have some benefit when it come to age- friendliness. Look to businesses, community based organization, academia, foundations, and civic and social organizations.
6. Engage intergenerational population to ensure sustainability.
7. Bring people together as much as possible so that they may share their concerns and ideas for resolutions to challenges.
8. Be flexible, an age-friendly community should be built to last. Know that you’ll never be finished -not if you’re doing the job right.
About the author
Mae Carpenter, a champion of seniors for more than 30 years, was appointed Commissioner of Westchester County’s Department of Senior Programs and Services (DSPS)
in 2001. Prior to that, she had served as director of the county Office for the Aging, the forerunner of DSPS, since 1979.
She is recognized as one of the most knowledgeable and innovative advocates for seniors in the United States, and speaks frequently across the country on issues that older adults face. Many people have called her a visionary.
She testified before a panel of Congressional staff members in the Capitol in 2013 about what Westchester has done to meet the urgent need for family caregivers for the growing number of seniors in the county. She also testified about what still must be accomplished in coming years as the number of older Americans continues to grow and the number of available family caregivers becomes fewer and fewer.
The Commissioner spearheads DSPS’ Livable Communities: A Vision for All Ages – Bringing People and Places Together Initiative. The goal of this trailblazing and multiyear project is to improve the quality of life for people of all ages and enable seniors to live active lives with independence and dignity as they age in their homes.