Making towns more friendly for the elderly

Age-friendly initiatives to assist older people are being investigated and implemented across the
country, says Áilín Quinlan.

Up to now, it’s been a relatively quiet revolution, but things are set to significantly ramp up as towns around Ireland push ahead with plans to improve age-friendly facilities.

From age-friendly parking spaces and public seating to free shuttle buses for older people, dementia cafes and computer courses, to something as simple as larger-font signage in local businesses, a wide range of initiatives aimed at making life easier for older people, is being implemented in towns and cities.

Google the phrase ‘age-friendly strategy’ and the names of towns all over Ireland pop up in relation to it. From Limerick to Sligo and Dublin to Cork, towns and cities have been carrying out ‘walkability studies’ — to determine whether the street-scape is age-friendly — and in-depth community surveys to determine the needs of older people. Communities are examining their amenities and facilities in terms of everything from infrastructure to housing to see how they can be made more age-friendly.

Do footpaths need to be ‘dished’ to enable easier descent onto the road? Is there enough public seating in amenity areas such as parks? Does the local pharmacy, post office or bus-stop have seats allowing older people to wait in comfort? Are half-portions available in restaurants to meet the reduced appetites of many older people?

This emphasis on age-friendly facilities is a global initiative driven by the World Health Organisation to take account of the fact people are living longer — and the need for societies to respond effectively to the requirements of a growing population of over-65s.

In 2006, around 11% of the Irish population, or about 467,900 people, were aged 65 and over. In the intervening decade, according to the Central Statistics Office, the number of people aged 65 and over has increased by around 54,000. It is projected that this sector may increase to around 25% of the population by 2026.

While an ageing population brings great opportunities it also delivers great challenges — which means more thought needs to go into designing housing, businesses, infrastructure and amenities with the needs of older people in mind.

Which is where the idea of age-friendly strategies come in. Ireland’s Age Friendly Cities and Counties Programme has its origins as far back as 2007, based on a pilot participation by County Louth in the WHO’s Age Friendly Cities Network Global Research.

These days, each of the 31 local authorities has its own Age Friendly programme involving an alliance of senior decision-makers across the public, private and voluntary sectors. The Older People’s Council, which is open to all older people and their organisations, represents the views of older people within the Alliance. The programme is implemented in conjunction with local Age-friendly Town groups, who address issues in their local areas.

“It’s all voluntary, from top to bottom, and very community-led,” explains Cork County Council’s divisional manager for north Cork, James Fogarty.

Take the picturesque Co Cork harbour town of Kinsale. One of four County Cork Age-Friendly Towns — the county council plans to increase this number to 12, starting next year — Kinsale, which received the designation in 2014, now has 10 age-friendly parking spaces in strategic locations.

It has also run an age-friendly business initiative resulting in larger, clearer signage, reduced music volume levels and extra seating. A shuttle bus free to older people is operating, while a Walkability Study resulted in the removal of footpath obstacles. The town’s age-friendly committee is currently putting together a community information leaflet with contacts for local services. Originally an age-friendly initiative, it’s considered to be so useful that it will be circulated throughout the area in the New Year.

The towns of Bandon, Mitchelstown and Cobh, which all joined the programme in early 2017 have implemented various initiatives. In Bandon, 10 age-friendly parking spaces are now in place. The local Age-Friendly Towns Committee — which is made up of local people working in conjunction with the local authority’s area engineer, municipal district officer and other bodies — is carrying out a survey of older peoples’ groups to determine issues of significance.

In Cobh, where The Great Island Community Forum took on the challenge, age-friendly parking spaces have been established. A walkability survey has been carried out and public consultation meetings held in order to get feedback about the issues that face older people living in and visiting the town. Based on the feedback, the group plans to pilot a volunteer-run dementia café for people with dementia and their carers in 2018, provide Age Friendly awareness training for businesses and install more seating around town.

Mitchelstown’s Age-Friendly Town Committee has established several age-friendly parking facilities, increased the amount of time allowed by traffic lights for pedestrians to cross a busy main road, and, in conjunction with Cork Institute of Technology, is considering a pilot project to trial a digitalised senior alert initiative.

At Cork County Council level, the age-friendly alliance includes representatives from bodies such as the local authority itself, Bus Éireann, the Chamber of Commerce, the HSE and the Older Peoples’ Council — the idea being, as Fogarty explains, to ensure that the initiatives implemented are a result of “joined-up thinking.” Such projects include “everything from the amount of time the traffic lights allow pedestrians to cross the road, to easier boarding of buses and ensuring that public seating is tall enough to allow an older person to more easily stand up again”.”

“These are very simple but important things,” says Mr Fogarty, adding that the provision of new age-friendly facilities is generally of significant benefit not just to the over-65s, but to the community at large.

“It’s important to raise awareness that older people need help in certain circumstances more than the rest of the population,” he says. “It’s about getting everyone to think in terms of age-friendly policies. The more people hear about it the more it becomes the norm and if you design for the elderly, you design for everybody.”

 


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