Graying Gotham: Toward a Senior-Friendly City

| July 13, 2011 6:00 AM video

Seniors visit a food specialty shop at La Marqueta, an East Harlem market. Their trip was made easier by a school bus ride provided under the city's "Age-Friendly NYC" program. AP/Bebeto Matthews.

Soon, New York City will be home to more seniors than children.  As thousands of baby-boomers turn 65 each day in New York and other American cities — places that were designed largely for younger people, with infrastructure based on stairs, cars and speed — the demographic shift presents a growing problem.

Urban officials and nonprofits are taking rapid steps to prepare for what the Associated Press dubbed the “silver tsunami.”

Graying Gotham: The latest Census figures show that in the past decade, there has been a 14 percent decrease in children in New York City, and a 30 percent increase in seniors, reported WNYC.

But this isn’t just a trend in New York City. “By 2050, one in five Americans will be seniors. Worldwide, almost 2 billion people will be 60 or older, 400 million of them over 80,” the AP reported this week.

The fact that people born during the post-war baby boom are rapidly becoming seniors is frequently discussed through the lens of dwindling social security and public health policy, but only in recent years have cities begun to seriously consider the more personal problems that this demographic shift presents.

The city just isn’t set up for seniors: The difficulty of accessing the subway, getting to the grocery store and the lack of public bathrooms all pose problems for older people with mobility and health issues. Without many public benches or spaces specifically designed for seniors to engage with one another, older New Yorkers are more likely to cloister themselves rather than participate in the city’s vibrant social life. And getting out-and-about in the car-filled city poses a heightened danger for active seniors. A recent report from the Tri-State Transportation Campaign indicates the pedestrian fatality rate is 2.5 times higher for people over 60 than it is for people under 60, reported Streetsblog.

So what’s being done? Civic leaders, nonprofits and even businesses are starting a growing movement to help cities become more accessible to seniors . According to the World Health Organization, New York City is leading this movement.

On June 23, seniors gathered by the hundreds at Thomas Jefferson Park to celebrate the East Harlem Senior Health Fair. Photo courtesy of NYAM/Amy Hart.

In order to ensure that New York City is senior-friendly, the AP reported that several organizations and agencies have started the following initiatives:

  • East Harlem became the city’s first “aging improvement district.” Sixty businesses set up chairs on the sidewalk for seniors to rest in, a Senior Health Fair was celebrated and the local pool offered “senior swim” hours.
  • The New York Academy of Medicine created a program that allows seniors to travel to distant shopping destinations by school bus.
  • A commissioned report showed which Upper West Side grocery stores were most senior-friendly, featuring amenities like public bathrooms and single-serving meats.
  • A “Time Bank” lets people of different ages barter skills. For example, an older person might volunteer to teach painting classes in exchange for free lessons in social media from a younger person.
  • City taxis will soon begin to be replaced by models designed with greater accessibility in mind.

East Harlem celebrates “Senior Swim” event. Thomas Jefferson pool is now open exclusively to seniors on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9-11 a.m.Video courtesy of Amy Hart/NYAM.

    Will we be successful in making this a more senior-friendly city? Because the  movement to make cities more accessible for people of all ages is in its infancy, there is a great deal of trial and error involved in these initiatives. But AP reported that many cities are making a push to collaborate with one another to see what works and what doesn’t.

    Here are some of the steps being taken in other places:

    • In Atlanta, a new farmer’s market offers weekday morning hours, when most seniors like to shop.
    • Portland introduced more handicapped accessible cars to its public transit system.
    • Philadelphia has proposed that a certain percentage of new housing include entrance ramps and large hallways.
    • Chicago offers a directory of local businesses offering  special discounts, which can only be accessed with a city-produced Senior Save card.
    • San Francisco created a pilot program that makes it affordable for seniors and the disabled to use the BART and MUNI transit systems with only one monthly pass. They usually require separate passes.

    While progress is being made, it’s important to note that there’s a long road ahead: Despite the many recent initiatives to make the city a more livable environment for older people — including his own “Age-Friendly NYC” program — Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration has cut $51 million in funding for senior support programs like senior centers and social adult day care since 2008, according to a report by the Council of Senior Citizens and Services. And for many NYC seniors, one-third of whom live in poverty, these publicly funded programs serve as a lifeline.

    Earlier this year, New York City nearly closed 105 of its 256 senior centers. Although the closings were ultimately avoided, there remains an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear regarding the future of senior services. In a financially-strapped city looking to the future, funding for senior programs sometimes loses out in favor of spending on the young, in the form of education and child welfare services.

    • kathleen mclaughlin

      great idea . keep me informed.

    • Ceejay Dutt

      Fantastic idea – hope it spreads to Westchester!

    • Mary Ann Hartl

      The article is great! It is about time that cities begin to do something to help the seniors in navigating both the city and the sites – especially in large cities. Most seniors are at the mercy of what ever the city has as policy. The population is aging and needs this support to help them navigate the systems. This is not the time to close facilities that are used and needed by seniors. All of the people making the cuts will be seniors themselves some day – and that day comes sooner than they plan.

    • Joanne Theodorou

      Thank you, someone is obviously on the ball here…..keep me informed, please!!

    • Michael Spielman

      Loved — LOVED — the video! Got a big laugh out of me.
      I wonder if I would have enjoyed it as much if it hadn’t said: “The requested video is not available. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
      Makes me wonder about the quality of this new website.

    • Judith Kurland

      I find that coming from Rockland County on the Bus to Port Authority can be difficult when you get to Port Auth. and have to navigate such long distances to walk inside that behemoth! Can’t think what could be helpful though. I like to walk down on 8th Avenue to see on and off Broadway shows.

    • Helen

      There ought to be a law mandating that Owners of Rental Housing be REQUIRED TO INSTALL BATHTUB HAND RAILS FOR SENIOR SAFETY. Seniors have a high propensity to
      slip and fall. Seniors need to bathe…and would like to. Aging produces many infirmities, particularly relative to hip-, knee- and ankle-joints and all mobility issues… limiting matures people’s ability to safely lower themselves into a bath, and to ever
      extricate themselves from the conventional bathtub that lacks any safety features whatsoever. QUESTION: Does anyone in the Real Estate industry, in the government,
      in the Health Department (and so forth) have elder parents, grandparents or great
      grandparents? HOW COME NO ONE HAS THOUGHT OF THIS FOR A COUPLE OF CENTURIES? HOW COME NO ONE SEEMS TO CARE ABOUT THIS? Do the people who
      don’t seem to think this is a priority issue presume they will never age? Think again!
      “Behold and see as you pass by/As you are now so once was I/As I am now you soon will be/Prepare for Aging and follow me!” And so, Prepare for Inaccessible Bathing until such simple provisions are accorded mature adults!

    • Elayne

      Amen to the bathtub letter. I worry that the day will come when I am unable to climb into our circa 1920 tub. I would love to replace the tub myself, but our landlord/agent permits no tenant alterations.

    • Christina Knight

      The website http://www.NYC-ARTS.org has information on NYC cultural groups that provide senior discounts, senior center programs and disability access and assistance related to mobility, hearing and vision. There is a NYC ARTS Cultural Guide for Seniors for each borough. While printed guides are not available, online information can be downloaded in pdf format and printed independently or stored on your computer. Guides for Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan can be found online: http://www.nyc-arts.org/page/get_involved/53

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