New Metrics for Elder-Friendly Communities

August 10, 2009

We talk a lot about the need to demonstrate impact when we are using “other people’s money.” Fair enough. Accountability is good. Sometimes, however, we can get trapped by “other people’s metrics.”  Had an email conversation with Bob Scarfo and Mia Oberlink this morning about whether we can demonstrate the bottom-line economic benfits of developing more elder-friendly communities through changes in land use, zoning, transit systems, etc. Boy – if we could do this, we’d have it made. Taxpayers and policy makers would leap on it! Regretfully, the research is pretty meager and sometimes contradictory. What if an elder gives up her car in favor of walking? By our current standard of measurement (GDP), coincidentally discussed on the NYTimes editorial page today, the economic benefit goes down, not up. She buys less gas, pays less insurance, pays less to her mechanic, etc. Even if she becomes more fit, her consumption of health care services goes down, not up. And we measure our country’s success by a rise, not a drop in GDP.

Now, I think there is room for studies that do indeed, focus on economic development benefits of certain elder-friendly community improvements. I am all for it!

On the other hand, we should be changing the terms of the debate as well, as Mia Oberlink suggested. There are many, many compelling arguments for change, but we do indeed need a new metric for measuring the intangibles: social capital generation through voluntarism and informal care; knowledge generation through mentorship and advice; generation of peace and understanding through social relationship building across generations; the generation of beauty through art and artisanship of elders; the generation of food through gardening and the care of children through babysitting and grandparenting.

I suspect there are other metrics we could employ and encourage readers to offer them up!



My Inauguration Hero: Pete Seeger

January 21, 2009

Pete Seeger with banjoI have to admit I was rather tired of all the celebrities at the Inauguration. The real hero in attendance was Pete Seeger, who faded into the background. It probably didn’t bother him for he has never been one to seek the limelight. Good for Bruce Springsteen, though, who gave Pete the introduction he deserved. Who among the celebrities has fought for so long and so hard for social justice, civil rights, the environment? Who among the celebrities has turned up at the curb weekly with a protest sign since the very beginning of the Iraq war? Who among the celebrities suffered from and fought successfully against the blacklisting campaigns of the 1950’s? While I thought I was the only one that noticed, I see that Wikipedia, also, commented on the fact that Pete and the group sang the radical verse about private property in This Land is Your Land, typically deleted from school book versions of the song. Who among the celebrities will be as politically active so close to their 90th birthday? Pete keeps on keepin’. He’s one elder that I find truly inspiring!

Alcoholism and the Economy: A Note to Obama

December 19, 2008
Which portion represents the old way of doing things?

Which portion represents the old way of doing things?

Recovering  alcoholics sometimes say you need to hit rock bottom before true change can begin. That belief underlies some of the optimism I have about the future in this country. I sense that our current crisis may provide amazing opportunity. The common threat that faces all might just bring us together in ways we had not imagined. It is wondrous, for example, that advocates for universal health care now represent voices across the political spectrum.

At the same time, I sincerely hope we don’t blow the opportunity. The rush to spend $850 billion in economic recovery resources does not mean we have to spend the money in the same old way. Just building new roads, work for work’s sake, might indeed create jobs. But can we not take the time to seriously look at our communities and consider how new jobs can actually improve the quality of life for individuals and improve the livability of our communties?

I took the attached photo awhile back when the City of Bloomington undertook road improvements that, as a consequence, sliced off a corner of one of our most beautiful and interesting cemeteries. Hoagy Carmichael is buried about 250 feet from where the photo was taken. The original concrete wall around this section of the cemetery was constructed by WPA workers. The ghastly faux stone portion without the cap represents our modern “improvement.” Have we lost the capacity to do it right? Have we lost the willingness to invest in the beauty of our public places?

Ivan Illich has argued that our economy, in moving from an industrial to a service base, has systematically “deschooled” us in skills, that, to our blame, may be lost forever. Before the elders who experienced the depression, the WPA, the CCC, have all gone, let’s find out from them how things worked!

Let’s use this amazing economic stimulus to learn again how to lay a good solid wall, how to nurture the center and re-build from within, and how to re-invest in the heart and soul of our communities, …not throw this money at the asphalt industry!  By the way…do you know who wrote the music to Heart and Soul?  Hoagy!


December 5, 2008

Saratoga Springs, New York. This historic and lovely community is host to an incredibly rich conference entitled Empowering Communities for Successful Aging. Mia Oberlink and I had the honor of speaking about the Indiana version of the AdvantAge Initiative to about 30 folks from around New York state. An orientation to the “AI” model was provided by Mia and I followed with an overview of the Indiana project, describing the range of community conversations around aging that is occurring throughout the state as groups digest their survey data. Two very interesting questions prompted some productive conversation. Veteran aging public policy maven Fredda Vladeck challenged states to develop planning processes that fully engage local communities and produce local action, while avoiding the proliferation of disparities that can occur where there is a vacuum in overall public policy commitments to equitable services and programs for all residents everywhere. I cited the positive example of an Indiana community that wants to, literally, “ramp up” access in and out of homes for frail elders – something that emerged from the local planning process. Fredda offered the suggestion that such an outcome might occur everywhere should public policy makers commit to the value of equal access for all.

Roger Sanjek, an anthropologist recently retired from City College, wondered aloud why we cannot truly and effectively integrate planning for those who live in “the community” with and for those who reside in institutions. I couldn’t disagree with Roger’s comment, though offered that the participatory planning model represented by the AdvantAge Initiative might well be applied in the micro-environment of the nursing home, where planning is typically expert-driven and where resident voices are typically absent. But Roger is right – citizens also need to take on the part of those who reside in institutions and consider these places to belong to the public realm in a very real way.

Next stop, Gary, Indiana, again, when citizens of Northwest Indiana will take up their survey data and put on their planning shoes – January 16, 2009.


December 5, 2008

As the election nears, older adults in Indiana are looking towards the future. With a high rate of political engagement, elders are a force in their communities and across the state. The statewide AdvantAge Initiative Survey report is a must-read for public policy makers and anyone concerned about supporting the needs and the aspirations of our aging population, now and in the future.

The statewide survey report can be found here:

Indiana Charts.pdf


December 5, 2008

Feels as if we have crossed a threshold here in Indiana. Oct. 1 marked the end date of the three year federal planning grant demonstration project. While the project is certain to continue into the future, there have been many wonderful partners and accomplishments along the way.

Today, I feel special gratitude for the lifetime of service to the Indiana and national aging network by two Hoosier standouts, Anne Jacoby and Duane Etienne. As longtime directors of two Indiana Area Agencies on Aging (Generations, and CICOA), these two individuals have made a truly significant mark on the development of aging services and on the lives of untold numbers of older Hoosiers. As they retire this fall, a giant pair of shoes goes empty! One can’t count the many feats they have accomplished! (Duane always liked a bad pun).

Duane and Anne have been instrumental in the success of the planning grant from inception through today. I know their talents won’t be lost to Indiana as they enter that revered emeritus, read consultant, phase of their lives!

9.21.08 – Boulder, Colorado

December 5, 2008

I had the pleasure this weekend of visiting with a remarkable group of elders who have taken life into their own hands – creating Silver Sage, a co-housing community here in the heart of beautiful Boulder. I learned that much of the impetus for this community was provided by the city of Boulder itself, which is using the co-housing concept as one of several strategies to develop a mixed income neighborhoood in the north end of the city. As Arthur Okner, one of the founders explained, “successful co-housing starts with the land”. The city approached Jim Leach, a developer of co-housing, to secure the property. Then Jim reached out to Arthur and others to assemble the collection of prospective owners and support their creation of a vision for the community. Having been under the impression that co-housing communities started with the people and not the site itself, this awakened me to the relevance of the business model itself as a driving force in successful developments.

I took some time to climb Sanitas mountain yesterday. Don’t be impressed… it’s not that hard. The climb paid off… as a brief rain shower that began on the western side of the low ridge moved to the east it created a full rainbow that framed the city of Boulder and the plain beyond. As a walker passing me on the trail reported, “it doesn’t get any better than this!”

This is a town that certainly values physical culture. I feel as if I am in Olympic Village and grimace when I see my profile reflected in the store windows. Definitely needing to get back to the gym when I return!

%d bloggers like this: