Graying Gotham: Toward a Senior-Friendly City

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.

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