AARP Vice President on Livable Cities, Inclusion, and Disrupting Aging
Q: We are here in Detroit with city planners and officials from both sides of the Atlantic talking about problem-solving at the city level. Why is this an important conversation for AARP to be a part of?
Dorothy Siemon: What happens at the city level has a direct effect on how people live and age. We want to make sure that everybody lives in a community and can live and age as they choose. Older people are a vibrant and important part of communities. There's a lot of work to be done at the city level to make communities age-friendly.
The work we do to promote livable, age-friendly communities helps people of all ages. For example, complete streets, affordable and accessible housing, and access to a range of transit options are good for people of all ages. These allow the whole community be able to live and really become involved and engaged in civic society.
Q: Livability and intergenerational cooperation are important themes for you and for your stakeholders. In terms of city policy, what do you hope for? What are you advocating?
Dorothy Siemon: On the livability side, we would like really to see planners look at where affordable housing is when they're locating transit. We want to make sure that there's green space and the ability for people to effectively engage in their community. Whatever age you are, engaging in your community is how you keep your life vibrant, and quality of life is very much affected by that.
We have a livability index that our public policy institute created that rates communities based on livability. Its seven categories looking at housing, transit, and a whole range of markers of what makes a community livable. We encourage planners and individuals to use that livability index to get a marker of what's going on in their communities.
In addition, we funded a paper from the Brookings Institute about innovation districts, which are compact sections of metropolitan areas that are redesigned to spur both economic growth and livability. It's titled Beyond Millennials. It's trying to look at economic development happening in innovation districts. Essentially, an innovation district is where there are a whole series of components that can jumpstart economic development, bringing together startups and looking at ways to really use the assets of that community to create more economic growth.
What we're trying to do in that context is say, "Think about all the people. Be intentional." Because often when innovation districts start, they're really pitched towards young people. That's great. We want to get young people jobs. We support that and that's a great thing, but it's also not the full spectrum of the community. We want innovation districts to think about being inclusive. By inclusive, we mean not just race and gender, but also age.
For example, we looked at Chattanooga, where they're running something called CO.LAB that intentionally takes seasoned business folks who are in their 50s or 60s and pairs them with the young people doing startups to try to share that business acumen they have gained over the years with the young people trying to start businesses. How do you deal with personnel, and payroll, and all those really back-of-the-house issues of running a business that often older people are very seasoned at? They understand how to run a business. That's just one example of how age diversity in the workforce can really enhance the outcome of what you're trying to do.
Q: AARP has a campaign right now called Disrupt Aging. Are there transatlantic lessons or lessons that you picked up here at the BUILD conference to apply for innovation and disruption in the aging process?
Dorothy Siemon: The Disrupt Aging campaign is really to challenge outdated beliefs and stereotypes and to spark new solutions so people can live and age as they choose. Really what that means is rethinking aging because we're all living longer.
People are not only living longer but many are healthier and having a longer period of middle age. What we need to think about is how to reengage people in the workforce and how to really benefit from that longer middle age. That means challenging things like mandatory retirement ages and the thinking that you can't contribute to society after a certain age, because a lot of people are healthy, and vibrant, and need and want to contribute. Some people need to work longer for economic reasons. Some people just want to work longer, or it's a combination of both. But, we also need to take care of folks who can't work longer. We acknowledge that, but there's a huge portion of this growing aging population that can continue to work and want to do so, and our communities are losing a lot by not engaging them.
When I look at what's happening in Detroit, there are important conversations about how you reengage folks who are here. The city is focusing on people who stuck it out in Detroit and are still living here. When I hear that, it says to me those are the older folks. If you've stuck it out over a long period of time, you're likely in an older age cohort.
What does that mean about what that group can contribute to Detroit as we come forward? Economic development might bring them back into the workforce in some way. Flexible hours can help in the sense of maybe they don't want full-time jobs, but making them feel part of the community can really help with the challenges of Detroit. City leaders are saying, "We don't want to create a whole new community that doesn't embrace what's here." That's what I'm hearing. They want to really keep the heart of Detroit. To do that, you need to say, "Who's here, and how do we reengage them in what we create that's new?" I was really excited to talk to different people in Detroit about what that means and bringing older people into it.
From a transatlantic standpoint, I heard a really interesting conversation with a planner from Athens and other places talking about similar challenges: how do you look at housing and reinvent accessibility for it while trying to preserve the classic older structures they have?
I do think there's this whole theme of honoring the old, but bringing it to a new, more functional place for everybody. But, I think this theme, internationally and here, is how do you honor what's here and preserve that, but bring it to a new place and bring everybody along with you. That's what is sparking my thinking. How do you reach back and say, "We're still honoring what the heart Detroit is, or the heart of Athens is, but we need to move into the 21st century and offer new opportunities through a new approach."
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