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.”

Communities for a Lifetime

March 1, 2011

Indiana’s Communities for a Lifetime bill is advancing through the General Assembly. With unanimous approval from the Senate Local Government Committtee, the bill passed to the Senate floor, passed there and has passed first House reading. One can visit the Indiana General Assembly website to view the legislation (Senate Bill 023) and follow its progress. I had the privilege of providing testimony at the Local Government committee on Feb. 11.

In a related editorial to the Indianapolis Star, I argue that we can wait no longer to being planning communities that work across the lifespan…

Is Indiana “Aging-ready?”

… we can wait no longer to begin serious planning to meet the needs and aspirations of the baby boom generation. The boom has sounded. Every day sees the entry of 10,000 individuals to the ranks of 65+ in the United States.

Doubtless, many are already tired of the explosion of articles, reports, and books on the baby boom and what it means for the nation. Some would argue, with economist Peter Peterson, that the demographic changes threaten the very fabric of our society, bringing about a bleak “Gray Dawn.” Others, such as author Marc Freedman, see the growing population of older adults as a vast, untapped treasure of talent and human capital, a golden opportunity, if we act wisely. None would argue, however, that the changes will have no impact on the status quo. Rather than wait to see what happens, why not plan for both the challenges and the opportunities ahead of us?

As for challenges, the reality is… we age. Our physical reserve capacity diminishes, our risk for disability increases. Large numbers of us will develop Alzheimer’s.  Many of us will develop age-related hearing and vision losses. Of course, many boomers hold out hope they can stave off disability and “square the curve” – avoid a long decline and stay robust till a “quick ending.” More power to them. Indeed, the fitness and nutrition craze, along with remarkable new medicines to control blood pressure and lower cholesterol, will enable many to enjoy more years of health than previous generations. Ironically, this puts a greater number of people at risk for Alzheimer’s and, combined with the sheer absolute numbers of those who don’t maintain health, will still challenge the systems of health and supportive services. Moreover, adults with developmental disabilities are, happily, living longer than ever before. As much of the public cost associated with health care for the elderly is directed towards institutions (both hospitals and long term care facilities), we must bend the arc of support in Indiana towards home and community based care. This is to say that aging is not simply a personal challenge, nor a medical problem to be solved by experts, but a community challenge.

Many communities throughout Indiana have begun to think creatively and collectively about what makes a good place to grow up and grow old. When describing their vision of a “community for a lifetime”, residents talk about walkable environments and mixed-use zoning. They envision new forms of housing such as shared housing, accessory units, downtown senior housing, and elder-cottages. They are innovating forms of association such as cooperatives providing supportive services through volunteer time-banks built upon inter-generational relationships. Municipal leaders seek local economies that don’t spin out young people and families, losing both the privileges and benefits of reciprocal exchanges between the elders of the family and community.

 There will never be a pill for old age. The destiny of both the young and the old will be determined by our ability to create sustainable, livable cities and towns. Current thinking, reflected in the new federal partnership established between HUD, the Dept. of Transportation, and the EPA, suggests that planning for sustainable communities will cut across the traditional lines we’ve drawn when making housing, transportation and land- use decisions. Moreover, to meet the need for creative solutions, planning must become more participative. To understand and sustain the heart and soul of Hoosier cities and towns residents of all ages and abilities must be engaged in the process. Yes, Indiana’s future may be gray. And gray is good.

 By Philip B. Stafford, Ph.D.

Director, Center on Aging and Community, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community

Indiana University

Adjunct Professor, Dept. of Anthropology and author of Elderburbia: Aging with a Sense of Place in America (Praeger, 2009)

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