Professor Anabel Pelham, Ph.D., has a dream that the World Health Organization will designate Los Altos the first age-friendly city in California, ranking it nationally with Portland, Ore., and New York City.
Achieving the “Global Age-Friendly City” title would benefit Los Altos in several ways, according to Pelham, a Los Altos resident and member of the city’s Senior Committee. WHO, the United Nations’ health arm, would support healthy aging by sharing technical information and fostering partnerships with the international network. She predicts that economic advantages could also result from the improvements, and said GreenTown Los Altos and other community groups support the idea.
“If we can make our communities welcoming, supportive and safe for older people, they will be accommodating to women with strollers, and there will be more feet on the street,” Pelham said.
She thinks major foundations might be more likely to confer grants on the city, which in turn would allow it to incorporate senior-friendly improvements.
However, even if that were true, there are still many hoops to jump through before Los Altos can even submit an application. First, the city must decide if pursuing the status is in the best interests of its citizens.
The Senior Committee considered the proposal Monday, after the Town Crier went to press, and will revisit it 4:30 p.m. April 4 at the Los Altos Senior Center.
“We don’t know enough about all of the complexities of this process to have any specific objections,” said Senior Committee chairwoman Karen Jenney.
For Los Altos to be designated senior-friendly, the city council must approve the plan and subsequently submit a one-page application to WHO. If the organization accepts the request, Los Altos would then begin a five-year plan to assess its age-friendliness and develop its goals. Cities have three years to implement their plans and then a year to evaluate their progress.
Making the city age-friendly
Once the city council approves the proposal, the next step would be to evaluate the senior-friendliness of Los Altos in eight areas: 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. WHO publishes a checklist in each category.
According to the WHO guide on aging, the goal is to maintain independence and prevent disability in older adults to retain a good quality of life. This might include “age-friendly pavements” that provide smooth, nonslip surfaces and pedestrian priority. Other factors might encompass places to rest, cycle paths, safe crossings for walkers and clean, well-lit toilets, according to the guide. Age-friendly housing should be affordable, modified for older people and well maintained.
Approximately 20 percent of Los Altos residents are over 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, an increase from 17
percent in 2000.
Making Los Altos more senior-friendly would revitalize downtown and benefit families as well as the elderly, Pelham said. Baby boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – began turning 65 in 2010, and 20 percent of the American population will be 65 by the year 2030.
“The planet is aging, whether we like it or not,” Pelham said. “Those curb cutouts are good not just for older people, but for women pushing babies as well.”
Every summer Pelham travels overseas, where she teaches in the European Master’s program and, in her free time, takes notes on senior accessibility in metropolitan areas such as Helsinki, Edinburgh and Copenhagen.
The co-author of numerous books and grants, Pelham earned her doctoral degree in gerontology, founded the Institute on Gerontology and teaches at San Francisco State University. She also teaches in Foothill College’s two-year gerontology certificate program, for which she hopes to garner support because it’s difficult to find qualified professional caregivers. Recently, she received a small grant from the Health Trust to hire four older graduate students to study the needs of the city’s seniors in the eight areas of city life that WHO identifies.
“(The students) are good reporters, and they’re on the street downtown taking notes,” Pelham said.
The students have already suggested installing a traffic circle on San Antonio Road at West Edith Avenue, where it’s difficult to cross the street. Traffic and transportation in general need improvement, according to Pelham. She recommended some kind of jitney service traveling up and down Main Street and into Los Altos Hills to enable seniors to get around easier.
To that end, Mountain View resident Nanci Cooper plans to launch the First and Main shuttle service sometime in the spring, with door-to-door pickup and drop-off in Los Altos (see article on Page 32). Unlimited rides will be available for $400 per month, said Cooper, who awaits city permits.
Areas for improvement
As the number of seniors living in the area grows, Pelham noted, the Los Altos Senior Center will need improvements.
“It’s challenged and needs a serious renovation,” said Pelham, adding that fortunately, the current Los Altos Civic Center Master Plan remodel calls for a new senior facility.
“You’re saying these improvements involve tons of money,” Pelham said. “Maybe yes, maybe no, because you have all those feet on the street.”
She pointed out that Los Altos “clearly struggles and is in serious economic troubles using old models.” If WHO designates Los Altos an age-friendly city, Pelham said, “we will be on the map as very progressive and innovative.”
Pelham is scheduled to present her suggestions to the Senior Committee April 4, and then to the Los Altos City Council by May. Ultimately, her mission is “to make our community welcoming, supportive and safe to people of all ages.”
To qualify for the international age-friendly city designation, Los Altos would also have to prove that its “inclusive and accessible environment” encourages “active aging.”
In addition to physical changes to buildings and streets, the city would have to work on providing services that include, encourage and respect seniors. An example cited by WHO is providing a senior checkout row in shops to avoid waiting in long lines.
“This would really put Los Altos on the map,” said Pelham, who added that it’s a “tragedy that seniors with a lifetime of rich experience are sitting around underengaged. … People in Los Altos are house-rich but income-poor. … (Many) people live alone, men and women – mostly women – and they’re frail and vulnerable, and, dare I say, lonely.”
For more information, visit www.who.int/ageing/age_friendly_cities/en.