Photo By: Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Los Altos and Los Altos Hills are the first and only World Health Organization (WHO) Age-Friendly Cities in California. In addition to being a title to boast about, the “age-friendly” designation indicates unique characteristics that make the communities special places to live.
Achieving the age-friendly status is no easy feat. To qualify, cities must meet a variety of criteria and benchmarks: demonstrate that seniors are involved in decision-making as it relates to city planning and programs for seniors; conduct comprehensive surveys of the needs of seniors; and develop plans to address those needs in meaningful ways.
Additionally, applicants must describe how their city currently meets or will improve in the eight domains that define what it means to be age-friendly according to WHO. These domains are evidence-based and have a direct impact on the health and quality of life of seniors. They include outdoor spaces and buildings, transportation, housing, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic participation and employment, communication and information, and community support and health services.
With the financial support of the Silicon Valley-based Health Trust, the city of Los Altos and the town of Los Altos Hills, the Los Altos/Los Altos Hills Senior Commission embarked on a two-year project that culminated in a successful bid for the WHO Age-Friendly Cities distinction in 2011. This is a major honor – and timely when considering that 20 percent of Los Altos residents are 65 and older. If baby boomers are added to the total, 30 percent of all residents are older adults.
Despite the perception that the terminology may convey, being age-friendly is an intergenerational benefit. Residents of all ages benefit from infrastructure that makes navigation easier. Curb ramps, appropriate street lighting, sidewalk repairs, benches and safe crossings make a community more livable for everyone.
Being age-friendly can be an attitude, but intention also matters. Los Altos aims to make seniors welcome and support them with the resources they need. For example, the Senior Commission is an active group that stays informed and current in implementing best practices in community-based health and human services.
Local nonprofit organizations are pioneering creative and effective programs to engage aging populations. The Rotary Club of Los Altos sponsors Partners for Elder Generations and the Encore! event to match seniors with volunteer opportunities. Los Altos Legacies supports many of the programs and services of the Los Altos Senior Center, and the Los Altos Community Foundation fosters many age-friendly projects through its Seniors Matter Program. A new effort, Los Altos Prepares, will mobilize volunteers as street captains. Faith communities and the staff at the Senior Center provide valuable support for older residents as well.
Despite the ideal landscape to accommodate aging residents of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, the local community can strengthen its efforts to be age-friendly in other ways.
According to a Los Altos Senior Commission survey, amenities including a modern community center and additional public and private transportation options are needed. Many empty-nest older residents want to downsize and move into downtown condominiums, but sky-high real estate prices are a deterrent. Seniors in Los Altos also indicated that they need more help to prepare for potential emergencies.
Fortunately, there are highways toward help. Being an age-friendly city allows the two communities access to technical assistance and best-practices support and ideas. It opens the door to program development grants offered exclusively to cities identified as age-friendly. In fact, the Los Altos Community Foundation is scheduled to submit two such grants that would support eight separate stand-alone mini-projects.
If funding for these proposals ensues, creative projects that promote intergenerational engagement and quality of life for older adults in Los Altos and Los Altos Hills could follow. Project ideas include studying the feasibility of a new fixed-stop shuttle, designing an interactive age-friendly app to assist seniors and their families, hosting an Intergenerational Emergency Preparedness Day event and even creating a community-based aging services program that might partner with Foothill College to provide internship opportunities.
Being age-friendly should benefit everyone in the community and keep all boats afloat.
Anabel Pelham is director of the Institute on Gerontology at San Francisco State University and a member of the Los Altos/Los Altos Hills Senior Commission. m