Bridging the GAP: What are older persons looking for in the New Urban Agenda?

Nearly 60 percent of the world’s older population lives in cities, and the new norm is ‘aging in place.

A man waits for the bus in Castellón, Spain. (Aitor Serra Martin/Shutterstock)

This story is part of an occasional series on the General Assembly of Partners (GAP), the main vehicle for civil society to organize and advocate ahead of Habitat III, the U. N. urbanization summit in October in Quito. The GAP represents a wide range of interests, which have coalesced into 15 constituent groups. Citiscope is profiling these groups about their preparations on the road to Quito with a focus on why sustainable urban development matters to their constituents.

Whether it involves ads targeting those who are soon to retire from well-paying jobs in developed countries, or the tug of a childhood home for migrants to the big city at the end of their working lives, the imagery is often the same: a quiet house surrounded by nature.

But the stereotype that older people belong in the countryside belies current demographic trends. There are 900 million older people worldwide, and 500 million of them — some 58 percent — live in urban areas. The new normal is “aging in place” — the tendency to stay put in the community where one raised a family, even after children have struck out on their own.

That means a lot is at stake for older persons in the New Urban Agenda, the global urbanization strategy currently under negotiation at the U. N. that will be finalized at the Habitat III summit in October. A GAP constituent group formed only recently to add their voice to the civil society chorus ahead of Habitat III.

But first, a note on terminology. The GAP group’s co-chairs Katherine Kline of the U. S.-based AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) and Sion Jones of HelpAge International avoid a fixed-age definition of “older”. They say that discrimination based on age comes at different points in life. AARP, for example, starts targeting U. S. members at age 50, while in a country with a much lower life expectancy, one could be considered an older person at 40.

[See: Habitat III offers an opportunity to build an inclusive, caring society]

Either way, the goal is for “cities that enable us to take the choice and make our own decisions about where we want to live and how we want to live in older age,” said Jones.

Accomplishing that objective means, above all, accessibility. At home, that could entail retrofitting housing stock to address health challenges such as arthritis, which can make gripping a doorknob painful. In the public realm, it includes offering adequate public transportation for older people who cannot walk long distances, cycle or drive cars. Accommodating walkers and wheelchairs means that evenly paved sidewalks and regular curb cuts are a must.

[See: Report urges cities to prepare now for aging trend]

If such modifications to the urban environment come at a cost, Kline thinks they are a sound investment.

“Older persons have traditionally been looked at as on one side of the financial ledger. ‘How are we going to prepare for these older people that are going to cost our cities or countries a lot of money?’” she explained. “These are vibrant people. If we can stay healthier longer and educated — don’t assume we can’t learn a new skill because we’re 55 or 60 — then you have the contributions of older people weighed against what too many people see as only the negative side.”

‘Literally invisible’

In the international arena, there are some standards on this issue. But there also are gaps, say these advocates.

They praised the World Health Organization’s guide and checklist for Age-Friendly Cities. But they also expressed disappointment that the U. N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) did not acknowledge the needs of older people. The MDGs guided global development efforts over the past 15 years but were replaced this year by a new 15-year framework, the more-expansive Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Recognizing this gap, a coalition of groups including the International Federation on Aging, the International Longevity Centre Global Alliance and the Grey Panthers led a concerted campaign to insert older persons into the SDGs, which were finalized in September. Their effort paid off, with older people now linked to 15 of the 17 SDGs.

[See: Barcelona wins Bloomberg Mayors Challenge with plan for elderly]

This recognition is important because without a direct reference, the U. N. development apparatus will not even count older persons in its demographic surveys. Reporting for most of the MDG targets, for example, stopped at age 49. “We were literally invisible because we were not included in data disaggregation,” said Kline.

Such an omission can have grave consequences. Air-quality standards that don’t bother healthy adults may be hazardous for older individuals. During disaster situations, a failure to take such groups into account may mean that there is nowhere to accommodate wheelchairs in a temporary shelter — as happened in the New York City area during Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

The advocacy coalition’s next goal is a convention or other legal instrument on older persons, something that already exists for children and women, for example. Now they’re hoping that if the New Urban Agenda recognizes older persons, that may generate new momentum within the U. N. system for such a step. Already some U. N. member states have formed the Group of Friends of Older Persons, chaired by El Salvador, to bring these issues to the forefront.

[See: In Italy, a struggling town looks to refugees for revival]

In advance of Habitat III, HelpAge International is preparing a global report on aging and urbanization in lower- and middle-income countries, in part to dispel the notion that aging populations are exclusively a phenomenon of rich countries. The WHO, meanwhile, will launch a global campaign against “ageism” in October, the same month as Habitat III.

All of these efforts, however, are not designed to treat the needs of older persons as separate from those of other city residents. In an ideal world, Jones said, a city that works for older people also would work for everyone — what has been described by urbanist Gil Peñalosa as “8-80” cities.

For instance, Japan, often the poster child of an aging society, has begun locating day-care centres near clusters of housing for older persons, Kline notes. The aim there is to facilitate grandparents’ caregiving needs. Slowly but surely, cities are becoming places for young and old alike.

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