A been awhile blog

November 25, 2015

I haven’t blogged in awhile. This year has been hectic, hard to find time to reflect – with new knees, family illness, etc. Nothing unusual for those of us in my age group. Yet, several times over the course of the year I have found myself saying “I need to blog about that.” As a follower of the late sociologist Herbert Blumer – “meaning arises out of social interaction” – I should note that my blog ideas are never truly my own, but typically the result of an interesting conversation with others.

Since June, my “adventures” have taken me from Bristol, England (International Making Cities Livable Conference) to Knoxville, Tennessee (Tennessee Livability Summit) and Columbus, Indiana along the way (Pitman Institute for Aging Well SEEK 2015 conference). I am struck by the increasingly global nature of the discussion of “communities for all ages and abilities.” I am proud that, in Indiana, with the new Indiana Lifelong Coalition, we are trying to be intentional in our efforts to bridge gaps across the aging and disability communities.

Yet, despite the global character of the demographic challenges, read “opportunities”, I have come to believe that most of the solutions will be local, not global in nature. If grand solutions are forthcoming, I feel it may be through the accretion of thousands of local innovations, what Nabeel Hamdi calls “small change” (2004. London: EARTHSCAN). I don’t disagree with my friend Kathryn Lawler’s admonition to “go big” with state level policies around important changes needed in transportation, health care, pension systems, housing, and design (Public Policy Aging Report (2015) 25 (1): 30-33 ). I am an old-fashioned Roosevelt Democrat who feels that governments can do big and wonderful things. Yet, at the same time, I find myself yearning for a Jeffersonian model of community that finds its character, its sense of place, its unique heart and soul at the local level.

Can we reconcile the big change/small change ways of thinking?

The WHO Network of Age-friendly Communities now includes 287 cities around the world. While WHO won’t be the fount of big global change, the Network will, or at least has the potential. In other words, linking and learning from local innovations will be key – the global equivalent of Herbert Blumer’s meaningful interactions.

Here at Indiana University in Bloomington, a group of 25 faculty, researchers, designers, artists, and community practitioners have come together to propose a Center on Global Aging. We envision an interdisciplinary and participatory initiative that can reach out to local communities in Indiana and around the world to “co-create” good places for all ages and abilities. We won’t eschew attention to emergent big policies, but will pay attention to the potential positive connection between local and global change. We are not organizing our project around a medical, needs-based model of aging but, rather, around the idea that older adults and people with disabilities are community assets.
What is needed is a knowledge and resource base that enables change at the local level. The resources should, likely, flow from the richer to the poorer nations. The knowledge can flow in both directions, as local communities, tapping the wisdom and treasure of aging and disability, learn how to solve problems around mobility, health and wellbeing, housing, social isolation, caregiving and nutrition. Hence, the Center will focus on four domains of innovation: creativity, technology, community health and economic security. We will argue that co-creation of change through these means can extend productive years and reduce the period of dependency at the end of life, while, in fact, helping define what a good life, and a good death, is all about.

I hope to report back regarding the funding of our center, but, as my parents always said: “We’ll see.”

Advertisements

Small Town/Home Base

December 4, 2011
old artist mentors young

from The Art of Aging: A Celebration of Old Age in Western Art, 1987, McKee, P.L. and Kauppinen, H. New York: Insight Books

(Note: Scroll to the end for information about an upcoming national conference call on Communities for a Lifetime)

My town of Bloomington likes to claim John Mellencamp as one of its most famous citizens, but Mr. Mellencamp was actually born and raised in Seymour, Indiana, down Highway 65 about 50 miles. So when he sings about “small town”, he’s not talking about Bloomington. Relative to Seymour, Bloomington was the big city when John decided to bring his band to the Bluebird cafe. I think he was known as Johnny Cougar back in those days. As a new graduate student in anthropology at Indiana University, I remember Johnny Cougar flyers on telephone posts but can’t say I made the clubs in those years (or now for that matter).

Seymour’s loss was Bloomington’s gain. But it’s an old story, as creative young people have always seen “getting out of town” as the first step to success in life. When the small town doesn’t provide opportunities for young people, you either leave or you feel trapped.

And there’s another thread to this story. The old people? They remain behind.

So what makes this old story different now?

The scale of the issue: small towns provide fewer and fewer opportunities for young people and there are more and more and more older people. This is the central point of Kimon Koulet’s wise comment to my last blog. Kimon is a planning professional in a New Hampshire region with a median age of 45.2, older than the state of Maine, the oldest state in the country. Kimon echoes comments I have heard from many small town Mayors and public officials. They are searching for new economic strategies that can deter the forces that stretch and snap the geographic ties between youth and age.

I am aware of but a few isolated attempts to turn the perceived burden of an aging population into an economic engine. But I believe the conversation has started.

One approach emphasizes the older person as consumer. This is central to “retiree retention and attraction” strategies, characteristically but not entirely, practiced by tourism promoters in southern states. Knowing that prior touristic behavior is a strong predictor of relocation and resettlement, several of these programs receive direct support from state departments of tourism (Mississippi and Louisiana, for example). More recently, towns in the New West have positioned themselves as retirement destinations, often beating out the traditional “sunny climes” model of the previous generation of retirees. Truly, entire regions in the New West have been transformed from extractive to service-based economies, organized around the needs and portfolios of a retired population.

A second approach emphasizes the older person as a patient. I am stretching the point, but, in my experience, I see public officials eagerly competing to receive the economic benefits of the latest institutional response to the health care needs of the elderly – assisted living, long term nursing facilities, and shiny new hospitals.

All well and good, but narrowly focused and missing the real opportunities to organize local economies not around the passive needs of older adults but around their productive potential. This is the town I am looking for and I urge readers to help me find the model…

It’s a town that actively cultivates and supports “elderpreneurs”, through development of work/live environments on newly enriched downtown main streets. It provides start-up consultancies (has an active SCORE chapter). At the same time, it supports elders in the creative class to mentor and hire young people into their professions and businesses. It creates a vibrant downtown culture that integrates, rather than segregates elders from hip young professionals.  It doesn’t support a rave venue and it doesn’t create a downtown senior center that is off-putting to young people. One of the hippest places I ever enjoyed is the Center for Southern Folklore in the heart of downtown Memphis. Talk about integrating old and young! 

It’s a town that attracts new industries that derive particular benefit from a mature work force interested in part-time and/or seasonal employment, with flexible benefits and a socially enticing climate.

It’s a town that makes it easier to get by on a lower level of attachment to the mass market. Because it’s compact, walkable and bikeable, one can seriously consider abandoning that costly auto. Because it celebrates and cultivates creativity at all ages, it is a town that is beautiful, exciting, unpredictable, and stimulating. Because so many new workers in the digital age (young and old) can work from “anywhere”, this town is totally wired – local and global at the same time.

I am guessing there are elements of this town in many areas of the country. What I am looking for is the town that has put all of this together, intentionally and comprehensively, and has accumulated evidence that it works – that it creates a local economy that keeps and attracts creative and productive citizens and future citizens, both young and old. If you find one, call me!!!

Shameless Plug: Join me and others in an interesting discussion of these topics in the next Community Matters phone call, Dec. 8, 2011: http://www.communitymatters.org/communities-all-ages


Where the Sidewalk Ends

June 23, 2011

The small towns some of us remember were essentially urban environments. Think about it: a vital commercial center with buildings taller than one story and the best locations and most beautiful buildings reserved for public uses; surrounding core neighborhoods with sidewalks on both sides of narrow grid-like streets, on street parking, tree plots, alleys for servicing the houses, narrow side lots, with houses and porches close to the sidewalk, and mixed uses that included neighborhood schools, groceries and cleaners. In Indiana there are towns with populations as small as 2,500 with this pattern.

If you grew up or visited grandparents in this small town, you know a bit about new urbanism. Now think about where the sidewalks end. They end where suburbanism began, where the streets began to curve, the yards got bigger, the uses restricted, and the alleys and porches disappeared.

As much as I like the poems and children’s stories of Shel Silverstein (especially The Giving Tree), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) draws a rather grim and dark picture of urban living, from which children must escape.

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.

The promise of the suburbs was, indeed, to provide an alternative to the asphalt city, a life in the country, where nature abounds. In such an idyllic setting, who needs sidewalks?  

 In fact, nature does not begin where the sidewalk ends. The suburb exists between the polis and nature, in that liminal space which is neither. Isolation (single use) zoning creates homogeneous residential areas separated at a distance from such (urban) uses as stores, workplaces, health care, and even schools. Enter the automobile – the family truckster – to mediate the connections among these uses for every individual and family. What, for the resident of the town center used to be a short walk or ride to reach “nature”, now requires further effort (carbon-based fuel) to get beyond the intervening sprawl.

I believe that history will treat the classic suburb as a mistake in human design – see what might have been a hybrid as a mutant. I may be long gone, but I believe that small towns and cities will be reinhabited and restored as vital, however small, urban centers, encircled by natural features, and connected to the global village not so much by concrete as by digital highways.

The aging of our society can provide a significant point of leverage to recapture our small towns and cities. Lately, we have been spinning old people to the margins of our communities, building housing on the fringes and pulling out those worn but glowing images of a pastoral serenity that is supposed to be appropriate for old age. Let’s not repeat the mistake. Let’s look for ways to keep and bring elders to the heart of the community – make existing towns and cities the new “campus” for quality of life in old age.

A few days ago I challenged a smart group of long term care administrators to imagine such “continuing care retirement communities” without walls. I suggested that the gated retirement community on the edge of town will be a thing of the past. Some bought it, some didn’t. But all agreed that only a comprehensive community development approach where everyone takes a risk would work. Given the alternative – the death of small towns and cities – I think it’s worth it.


Redefining Prosperity

December 7, 2010

 

Live long and prosper

Vulcan salute

If I were to fulfill Mr. Spock’s blessing to “live long and prosper”, I guess I would die a rich old man.

Somehow, however, that dream feels a little hollow. Yet, it’s at the core of the American economy, right? We are told that we depend on people getting rich to create the jobs that fuel increased consumption and continued economic growth. And staying young forever is, of course, the desired state of every baby boomer consumer, according to Madison Avenue.

I have a growing suspicion that the prospects for every American to enjoy riches are as dim as the prospect that we can all live to 120. Acknowledging the reality of one’s own mortality is the first step to understanding what it means to age well. Acknowledging the reality of our economic limits can be the first step to a new definition of prosperity.

As this year’s fabulous Community Matters ’10 conference was held in Denver, I had an opportunity to meet planners, government officials, and resident activists from multiple small towns in the Mountain West and High Plains. Many of these communities are struggling economically, often due to the decline of traditional  industries (mining, logging, ranching and farming) in the face of worldwide competition. One common consequence of this trend is the departure of young people from their home communities and the subsequent increase in older age-density, creating what Dace Kramer has referred to as “naturally occurring retirement regions” (NORR’s). This has been accompanied by an influx of new retirees seeking amenities not typically provided by sunbelt retirement communities – incredible natural beauty, skiing, hiking, recreational ranching, etc. As one might guess, local economies are shifting to a “service” base as the population ages, due to both aging in place and in-migration.

While recognizing aging is a major driver of population and economic change in the New West, I have come to realize that, with respect to local economy, it’s impossible, better said, impractical, to discuss aging without reference to youth, and vice versa. If people are to age well in the New West, they need robust youth to provide services of all kinds. If communities are to provide opportunities for youth that enable them to stay put, they need the monetary investment of elders.

Seems like a simple dollars and cents issue. But it goes deeper. In the practical sense, attachment to place requires dollars and cents. For a young person, it equates to a job. For an elder, it often equates to cost of living. The converse applies to both. In a deeper sense, attachment to place is not a monetary issue. We are attached to a place because we feel we belong there. We know the place and it knows us. We nurture the place and it nurtures us.

When we reach the right place, we don’t need more because we have enough. We have loving relationships. We have the sense of fulfillment that comes from the beauty of the quiet order around us balanced by the sense of delight that comes from the unpredictable and creative spirit of nature and of youth. To appreciate what we have means we must regularly view our place from the outside, which can simply involve embracing those strangers who are our future neighbors, friends and family.

When we reach the right place, we are prosperous. Yet, we may very well be spending less, not more, which in the current scheme is anathema to our American economy. We are told that, without wealth-creation, America will become a “second-class economy.” The “new normal” means a lower standard of living. If that’s true, is this bad? These days, both young people and elders are the new pioneers in the so-called lower standard of living. Should we not notice that they are discovering the difference between standard of living and quality of life? Should we not be listening to elders who can teach us how they survived hard times and to youth who can teach us how to live more lightly on the planet?

Addendum:

Through the generous support of the Orton Family Foundation, and others, the participants in the Community Matters ’10 conference came together to explore and develop a new “heart and soul” approach to community planning. This approach is based on the belief that a slavish adherence to growth in every direction threatens the heart and soul of our communities – the things that, in the end, attach us to place and define who we are. Economic growth and quality of life are not necessarily antithetical. But a corporation is not a person (despite the Supreme Court decision) and capital is, too often, not attached to place. Planning that reveals and promotes the heart and soul of a place is essential and, indeed, many local companies are loyal to their communities and help define heart and soul. Storytelling and story sharing are critical tools for “heart and soul” practitioners. For a wealth of connections to this growing and exciting area of community planning and activism, visit the Orton website at: http://www.orton.org

Spend some time with the site and be sure to look for the Heart and Soul Community Planning Principles.


Aging in the Hood: Small Grants/Big Impact

January 29, 2010

January 29, 2010

Sitting in Buffalo Airport, waiting to return to Hoosierland having spent two fascinating days with citizens of 6 Buffalo and 2 rural Western New York neighborhoods. Called the Neighborhoods (Aging in Place) Initiative, the Health Foundation of Western and Central New York is supporting these grass roots groups with small grants to tackle real issues affecting seniors striving to age in place amongst their neighbors.

While I’ll likely be remembered as the idiot from Indiana who didn’t bring a coat to Buffalo, my role was to convene discussion around methods to engage stakeholders, including seniors and kids, with issues of aging in place. This was followed by small group meetings and a tour of several Buffalo neighborhoods. The diverse group of neighborhoods range from low income neighborhoods struggling with disinvestment and deteriorating housing stock, to middle class, first ring districts with fantastic 100 year old late Victorian and arts and crafts residences. Buffalo has outstanding architecture and landscaping, including work by Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and Frederick Law Olmstead. Rural communities participating in the project include the village of Springville, in the town of Concord (a distinction in government units I was not aware of), and Pulteney, near Corning, south of Buffalo.

The neighborhoods have received $15,000 each to mount grass-roots organizing efforts to mobilize citizens and organizations around selected “indicators” drawn from the AdvantAge Initiative “four domains” model of an elder-friendly community. Their work will range from snow shoveling to weatherization; from transportation to relationship building – the kind of concrete goals that represent the marvelous ways that neighbors can support one another. I came away with much admiration for the creativity and compassion of these neighborhood community organizers- not a bad word in my lexicon!

I am excited by the national trend to support ground up planning and action in the field of aging. This can only help suplement the great work that agencies on aging and other service providers struggle to keep up with – a struggle that will never end for there will never be enough money for the government sector to address the needs.

The Administration on Aging is coming around to the same conclusion and, as a consequence, experimenting itself with new models for aging in place that spread the responsibilities beyond the traditional aging service network. Earlier in the week, as a member of the Technical Assistance Group, I had the pleasure of participating in the first meeting of the National Advisory Council for the AoA Community Innovations for Aging in Place project, which supports pilots in 14 cities and towns around the U.S., ranging from highly urban to highly rural. The shift in perspective from services to individuals to community development and organizing will be a fascinating thing to watch. What will be the role of Area Agencies on Aging in the future if they are to incorporate community development into their operational capacities? Are there other as yet undefined hybrid organizations out there that will provide leadership for the integrated, convergent strategic planning and action that will break down the siloes (transportation, housing, health care, land use) which, disconnected, preclude a more wholistic approach to aging in place?

As they say, we live in interesting times. Too bad this comes at just the moment when scarce resources dampen creativity, grand ideas, and national unity. What is different now, when compared to the 30’s, when grand ideas were just what the doctor ordered? I fear we have lost the memory of those times when we need it the most. You elders out there who lived through the depression…. we need your testimony!!! ( see my blog dated


Philanthropy and Aging

January 8, 2010

Through the leadership of the Indiana Grantmakers Alliance and support from Grantmakers in Aging, local EngAgement Initiative Networks are now being established by nine Indiana (county) Community Foundations and their partners. I had the pleasure of sitting in on yesterday’s first teleconference to hear about local plans to engage community stakeholders and explore the implications for philanthropy of Indiana’s changing age demographics. I was delighted to hear that project leaders are aware of the two-sided nature of this coin, if you will. They are sincere in wanting to address needs of the current population of vulnerable elders while, at the same time, aware of the opportunities to tap the significant resources in social and monetary capital represented by the current and future population of elders.

Thanks to the Lilly Endowment, Indiana is unique in having developed an incredible philanthropic infrastructure that now sees community foundations established in every one of 92 counties!  Not only does this provide the mechanism for building endowments at the local level, but it also provides an avenue for large foundations to move money down easily to local communities, knowing that the local funder is capable, accountable, and connected to local interests.

I have a particular fondness for local foundations that emphasize their potential and role as “convenors” – using their neutrality and their skills to facilitate the bringing together of diverse stakeholders to address common community issues and problems. Not being service providers themselves, they can’t be accused of feathering their own caps, as long as they do indeed maintain their neutrality and their whole community orientation.

A recent survey of local foundations in Indiana conducted by Indiana Grantmakers did discover that aging issues are somewhat “down the list” on funding agendas. A survey of 276 foundations, with 69 responding, indicated that only 22% of the respondents agreed that aging issues were a priority for their organization. Fewer than half believed that they have a strong understanding of the actual issues facing our aging population.

Through the EngAgement Initiative, however, this situation is likely to change. It is spurred logically from the realization that in Indiana and elsewhere, we are in the midst of a significant transfer of wealth from one generation to the next. According to the Workforce Wise report, released in December of 2009, “$412 billion will pass from one Indiana generation to the next by 2050. Focusing on the next 10 years, it is estimated that Indiana’s transfer of wealth opportunity is $66 billion. If just 5% of the $66 billion in the next 10 years were to be invested in community endowments across Indiana, more than $3.3 billion in philanthropic assets could be created. Assuming the usual 5% annual payout rate of many grantmakers, more than $164 million would be available annually for community grantmaking.” (to see the report visit the Workforce Wise website. )

In Indiana and in many communities throughout the U.S. (South Bend, IN , Muncie, IN, Indianapolis, IN, Contra Costa, CA, Fort Collins, CO, Chicago, IL, Winter Park, FLA, Grand Rapids, MI just to name a few), community and private foundations have played extremely significant roles not merely in funding aging services but in bringing the entire aging and lifespan agenda into public focus and helping develop long range community plans that address needs and tap the potential of current and future elders. Philanthropy in aging needs to go way beyond the “we need a new van phase” if it is to play a serious role in helping create aging friendly communities. The experiences and contributions of the above-named cities demonstrate that we can certainly get there if we try.

For more information about the Indiana EngAgement Initiative and the Grantmakers in Aging project, visit the new IGA website.

 

 


Making the Rounds – Aging Indiana

October 6, 2009

I had the pleasure recently of traveling to New Albany with Marie Beason and Marissa Manlove of Indiana Grantmakers Alliance. IGA has received funding in a national program of Granmakers in Aging entitled The EngAGEment Initiative. This is an effort to elevate awareness of aging issues within the philanthropic community and, secondarily, assist funders in developing their endowments through attention to these increasingly imporant issues. These roundtables, along with other forms of outreach, will continue into 2010. A recent survey of Indiana members of IGA revealed that only one in five funders saw aging issues as a priority for their foundations. Yet, 60% were interested in learning more about aging issues in their communities. Given that $66 billion will be transferred from the oldest to the next generation in Indiana alone in the next ten years, philanthropic organizations would  be well advised to develop stronger relationships with and a better understanding of the older population and its concerns, not merely about itself but about the generations to follow.

The IGA survey has helped inform research being commissioned by the Indiana State Chamber of Commerce Foundation (see NEWS at www.agingindiana.org ). The Chamber has identified the aging workforce as a pillar issue this year and it’s great to see increased public attention. Being on the advisory group and having conducted some research on this as well, the issues are pretty fascinating. In the coming weeks, the Chamber will be going public with the findings and discussing the implications for the future economic health of Indiana.

Public discourse has noted the current reality for many, many Americans – that health insurance is inextricably tied to work. Insofar as capital benefits greatly from a flexible, mobile workforce, it is hard to understand why there are objections to more “portability” for insurance consumers. I have not heard anyone comment yet that many baby boomers might choose to leave paid work should a viable public option (or private) be made available outside of the workplace. Would that not be desired by many pre-Medicare folks who would like to retire. Would that not be desirable for young persons trying to break into careers? Would that not be desired by employers seeking to re-calibrate wages and salaries at lower levels?  Now the issue of brain drain is one that would have to be addressed should people start retiring earlier (again – as was the case until about ten or fifteen years ago).  The downside might be that, if people begin taking Social Security earlier, the pressures on that system will increase. Social Security has been fairly stable as people extend their working years – paying in for longer periods of time while delaying “pay out.”

It’s a complicated issue. Glad I am not the “czar” on this one!


%d bloggers like this: