There is a movement in Champaign-Urbana that seeks to improve the lives of older adults and, in fact, is already doing so. You might have heard the term “Age-Friendly” tossed around in the last few years, but you might not realize the ways in which it is now – and will in the future – impact your life.
In March 2017, C-U joined the World Health Organization and AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities, initiating a five-year cycle of planning, implementing and evaluating. The driving force was Kathleen Holden, a former University of Illinois administrator and Clark-Lindsey Village board member. Holden attended a conference in 2014 during which Age-Friendly was discussed and she sought to bring it to C-U. She approached Tanya Gallagher, then the dean of Applied Health Sciences, who believed in the vision.
“All of us agreed that one of the best things about this initiative is that it is directed by older adults, not for older adults,” said Holden, co-chair of the Age-Friendly C-U steering committee. “Which is often the case. Very well-meaning people design things and put things together with older adults in mind, but they don’t ask older adults, ‘Is this what you want?’”
So, under the guidance of Wendy Bartlo – Proposal Development and Community Outreach Specialist for the U of I’s Center on Health, Aging and Disability – a 500-person survey of older adults was conducted, providing the basis for what would work into an action plan that would have three focus areas: Communications, Inclusion and Transportation.
The 20-member steering committee includes representatives from a wide swath of C-U life such as city planners, public health, park districts, health care, retired living centers and transportation services.
“I usually describe (Age-Friendly) to people as a public commitment for cities to be more livable for people of all ages, but with a focus on older adults,” Bartlo said. “I think the confusion is a lot of times people think this is a designation, that this is a great place for older people to live, but this is a process not a designation. The idea is that the AARP doesn’t want to declare someone Age-Friendly and then have them forget about all of their older people. It’s trying to figure out what’s going on in this community, what do older people want (in order) to make it a better place. From there it’s developing the action plan and implementing it.”
The survey revealed key findings. An example: “We found out we really were only reaching the high-education (segment of the population). We know we’re never going to reach everyone but we were able to tease out some stuff in the survey that people of lower income and lower education didn’t feel as safe, they didn’t feel there were as many places to sit down in (downtown Champaign). They just think there are not as many benches or not as many public bathrooms. That’s a real problem, if people don’t think their community is safe, that there isn’t a place to sit down or use the bathroom. So they’re not going out, they’re becoming more isolated. So that was a big concern to us.”
That’s why the ability to touch all aspects of C-U life was important for the steering committee. City planners, for example, are reminded that physical changes should be mindful of the senior community.
“For example,” Holden said, “when they’re looking at redeveloping downtown Champaign, (what) if they take all the parking out? How (will) older adults get to places? They might not be able to walk for two blocks. They’re not physically challenged enough to be in a chair, but it’s darn hard to walk that far sometimes. What we were asking when they talked about this plan was, ‘Please consider older adults when you’re planning physical changes to the environment.’”
Year 1 of the action plan began in April 2019. Each area of the plan (communication, inclusion and transportation) has a specific set of goals for the first three years. For example, the Year 3 goal for the communication section is to explore an app that “connects older adults with this community and the broader surrounding area.” A Year 2 goal for the inclusion section is to “develop targeted outreach to and communication strategies for underrepresented groups.” A Year 2 goal of the transportation element of the plan is to “implement Champaign County One-Click One-Call center based on available funding.”
It’s easy to see why the initiative is a long-term project, not a fix-this-and-we’re-finished deal.
“There’s no end point,” Holden said. “I think it’s easy to get something started and everybody’s excited and then as it goes on they might move on to other things. I think that’s one of the keys – to keep people engaged in the process. That’s why the steering committee is so important. The folks who could influence what’s going on in the community are sitting at the table. We have to rely upon the cities when they’re making street plans to bring those to our attention. Both mayors have signed on to the plan. But it’s more than that. We need to keep reminding people: Hey guys, there’s a whole group of folks out here whose voices aren’t always heard.”
Read more about resources available for older adults in Champaign-Urbana