As our population ages we need to be making much more effort to make our towns and cities more age-friendly, say Dr Tine Buffel and Sophie Handler.
Study after study has shown that people want to stay in their own homes for as long as possible in later life. An attachment to a particular place and neighbourhood, alongside a growing sense of belonging and identity, become more and more important as we age.
For the most vulnerable, often older, people in our society this attachment and access to local support networks becomes even more crucial. Yet it is often these very people who are among the most excluded communities in our towns and cities today.
Against this backdrop developing age-friendly policies has become a significant dimension in social policy. Much of the groundwork has been laid by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Over the last decade it has driven its global age-friendly cities agenda to identify those factors that make urban environments age-friendly and then looked at how ageing issues can be better integrated into public policy.
But here in the UK there is still much to be done in this context. For instance, there is no national ageing strategy and instead we see more ad-hoc policies emerge, such as with the recent review of pelican crossings conducted amid concerns that older people have insufficient time to cross busy roads.
Such piecemeal initiatives fail to tackle the broader issues faced by older people. Instead the state needs to be developing a clear narrative that pushes age-friendly policies to the top of the agenda.
In the absence of a national narrative, it has been left to individual towns and cities to develop their own policies. In this regard Manchester is at least ahead of the game; it is the UK’s first age-friendly city as classed by the WHO – and a city that is championing a citizen-based approach to ageing.
Crucially, Manchester’s evolution as an age-friendly city has had political backing. It has a steering group comprised of health and local government officials, as well as representatives from housing trusts, the arts and charitable sectors. This group meets regularly to ensure the views of older people are taken into account whenever there are significant changes to transport, housing, health and social care policies.
Fundamental to this drive is making older people central to the life of the city. This takes quite a shift in thinking, not least because a city like Manchester is marketed as a young and dynamic and home to the biggest student population in the UK and a thriving young professional community. What is less well marketed is that the city is still home to many less affluent neighbourhoods where older people face significant challenges every single day.
It was precisely into one of these areas, Whalley Range, that a research project into the social and environmental aspects of age-friendly policies was recently directed. Our study set out to more precisely identify what is happening on the ground in the district and to identify some of the key issues facing older people.
While any study of this kind inevitably identifies issues specific to a particular area, our research did unearth some common concerns around issues such as health, community and transport.
For instance, we discovered that a lot of older people live away from main roads and so were forced to walk considerable distances to access public transport. Another significant problem was the lack of meeting spaces where people could meet for a coffee and a chat.
Wider communication was another issue given that so much news today is relayed electronically rather than via local newsletters or newspapers. We found that at times older people simply couldn’t access what was going on in their neighbourhood.
And then there was the whole impact of local authority cuts and how that impacts on the quality and quantity of services. For instance in Whalley Range we found that the planned closure of a local leisure centre which would force residents to travel to one further away was a major talking point. Likewise, local transport lines were at risk of being cut.
We should be looking to promote age-friendly policies within the development of the urban environment, integrating age-friendly principles into the regeneration and design of urban spaces.
It doesn’t need to be big-scale. Sometimes it is really the small-scale actions which can make a massive difference – the free-to-use seat inside a butcher’s shop or a co-designed bench (with a walking stick holder) installed on a street. It is about getting a whole neighbourhood, and particularly businesses, to think more imaginatively and creatively about the needs of older people.
In the light of this, we are currently working with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and Age UK on publishing a guide later this year that will help designers, public realm artists and architects think more imaginatively about developing age-friendly spaces.
Until now there has typically been something of a ‘checklist’ approach to the needs of older people in urban environments. But what we will be trying to convey is that the approach doesn’t need to be so prescriptive and there should be room for more creative thinking.
Ultimately it comes back to making older people feel far more included in decision-making and this remains an absolutely fundamental tenet of developing age-friendly policy. Older people need a voice and we must respect that.