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.”

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