By Emily Morrison and Emily McDonald
Over the past year and a half, we have participated in an ongoing, community-based research project to understand the experience of aging in the District of Columbia with a particular focus on older adults. This experience has introduced us to many community members, leaders and activists who are working to strengthen our community, foster systemic change, and help the District become a more age-inclusive city. Here we offer a brief overview of how one organization is using findings from this inquiry to advance a city-wide initiative aimed at making the District an easier place for all to grow older.
The United States continues to witness a significant demographic shift: the number of people age 65 and older is on the rise and is projected to double by the year 2060 (Mather, Jacobsen, and Pollard 2015). This shift raises questions as to how the fabric of communities may change and how communities can best prepare. The District of Columbia, in particular, raised this question around how to better support citizens as we all grow older. In 2012, the District government began laying the foundation for building an age-friendly city and continues to take a multifaceted, collaborative approach by inviting academicians and researchers interested in community-based work to join community members and leaders in this effort.
Given the ongoing dialogue around aging globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) established the “Age-Friendly” initiative to evaluate cities’ “structures and services” for their accessibility and inclusivity for “older people with varying needs and capacities” (WHO 2007). Locally, in 2012, then Councilmember Muriel Bowser led the City Council to approve plans for the city to participate in the WHO Age-Friendly initiative (AFDC 2017). The initial steps established Age-Friendly DC (AFDC) as a 5-year mayoral task force. The task force began a city-wide inquiry to assess the experiences of older adults in the District, how citizens are already organizing themselves in formal ways (e.g., belonging to a recognized organization) and informal ways (e.g., checking on a neighbor) to provide the structure and support they need, as well as what programs and services may be needed. The task force employed direct interviews, focus groups, and meetings with community members throughout all eight wards.
Several issues emerged through the task force’s inquiry. One of the biggest concerns is a lack of affordable residential facilities that support individuals as they grow older and as their needs and capacities shift over time. Many adults of all ages wish to remain in their current communities as they grow older.
However, doing so is complicated by ongoing neighborhood gentrification and limited resources for expanding access to services like transportation and wellness centers. Thus, AFDC established a collaborative relationship with Villages, which are grassroots organizations focused on creating intentional communities where older adults can support one another in aging in place for as long as it is safe and feasible to do so.
Villages are founded as emergent organizations. Neighbors essentially establish a Village for themselves, and then continuously create their organizational structures and services based on their needs over time.
The first DC Village, Capitol Hill Village, was established in 2006. The movement continues to grow, with 12 active Villages in the District as of 2017 (AFDC 2017). Villages help foster social connections among neighbors through events and services (e.g., educational programs, tai chi classes, ride-sharing, and book clubs). More generally, Villages provide a space where neighbors can ask for help with whatever they may need (e.g., help cleaning one’s home after surgery), and provide assistance and support to fellow members in whichever ways they can (e.g., checking the mail while someone is away).
However, Villages also face significant challenges. First, Villages are not evenly distributed throughout the city. Most are concentrated in higher income areas with less racial diversity than the city’s overall population. Further, some Villages require membership fees.
While many Village leaders work to establish reduced cost programs, fees may potentially exclude interested neighbors with more limited incomes. Overall, Villages currently provide significant and much-needed services and opportunities for community-building. At the same time, there remains the need for model adaptation to support older adults in different parts of the city and with varying levels of resources.
Understanding the Villages’ overall strengths and current limitations provides opportunities for further growth, which exemplify how AFDC continues their work. In 2017, Mayor Bowser signed AFDC’s 5-year renewal. Over the next 5 years, spanning until 2023, AFDC will continually develop age-inclusive programs for the city, and continually collaborate with, and support organizations like the Villages. AFDC’s efforts and the self-organized and emerging Villages offer ways to add perspectives to existing theories of researchers like us.
The Villages also challenge models that oversimplify or fail to see the complexity of aging. Dillaway and Byrnes (2009) argue that aging studies frequently undertake “crises” frameworks that focus on how retiring baby boomer cohorts are producing structural strains for social services and younger generations.
These frameworks reduce the complexity of what it means to grow older by misapprehending lived experiences, replacing individual agency to affect change with assumptions of inevitable disengagement in later years, and disregarding how communities can better organize their systems in more age-inclusive ways. We have found that issues such as accessible housing and healthcare (which are important to many researchers and sociologists in particular), intersect with aging in important and consequential ways that vary greatly in context.
Through our ongoing, community-based research which engages community members as essential knowledge co-creators, we continue to find opportunities to support grassroots organizing through the research process itself (e.g., training community members to assess their own needs and practices) and through legitimation from rigorous study of Age-Friendly programs in the District (e.g., funders or city leaders seeing Villages as formal and feasible organizations they should support).
Many more opportunities remain for collaborative work throughout the District to promote an age-inclusive community where all are supported as we grow older.
AFDC. 2017. “Age-Friendly DC: Five Year Progress Report to the World Health Organization.” Retrieved from: https://agefriendly.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/agefriendly/publication/attachments/DCMayorBook_AgeFriendlyDC_111517_0.pdf
Dillaway, Heather E. and Mary Byrnes. 2009. “Reconsidering Successful Aging: A Call for Renewed and Expanded Academic Critiques and Conceptualizations.” Journal of Applied Gerontology 28(6):702-722.
Mather, Mark, Linda A. Jacobsen, and Kevin M. Pollard. 2015. Aging In The United States. Population Bulletin: 70(2). Retrieved from: https://www.prb.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/aging-us-population-bulletin-1.pdf.
World Health Organization. 2007. Global Age-friendly Cities: A Guide. Retrieved from http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/43755/1/9789241547307_eng.pdf