Tip Sheets

How ‘age friendly’ is your community? Here are some tips to assess it

By Liz Seegert

You may be familiar with the term “age-friendly city,” but do you know what goes into being one?

It’s a concept we’ll likely be hearing more about as the worldwide older population is poised to surpass those under age 65 by mid-century. As people around the globe age, cities and communities face some major challenges – from providing elder-friendly public transportation to venues that welcome older adults to “walkable” neighborhoods that enable their inclusion in community life.

Creating age-friendly cities can bring together all stakeholders to create policies and programs that address the distinctive needs of older adults. Ideally, they emphasize empowerment rather than exclusion – age-friendly should mean friendly for all ages, not just “elder friendly.”

As I previously reported, New York City and Portland, Oregon, were among the 33 cities in 22 countries that have implemented the World Health Organization’s (WHO) age-friendly cities project since its launch in 2007. However, that’s barely scratched the surface, according to Louise Plouffe, Ph.D., research director at the International Longevity Centre – Canada.

Thousands more cities and towns need to be better prepared for the wave of aging baby boomers. That means making changes to meet the long-term health, housing, transit, social and civic needs of a population that routinely live well into their 80s and 90s. Key considerations include universal design, accessibility, health care services, “walkability” and ability to age in place.

Key considerations

When reporting on the age-friendly cities movement, it’s helpful to refer to the WHO’s  multipoint checklist to assess age-friendliness. See how well your city does in the eight key areas of livability:

  • Outdoor spaces and buildings:  pavements, green spaces, safety, lighting.

  • Transportation: affordability, access, services and traffic flow.

  • Housing:  affordability, design, accessibility, access and safety.

  • Social participation: inclusion, location, cost, variation and outreach.

  • Respect and social inclusion: input, inclusion, education, media depiction, access and recognition.

  • Civic participation and employment: flexibility, adaptation, opportunity, bias-free and employer training.

  • Communication and information: accessibility, variety, age-specific, plain language and access to technology.

  • Community and health services: range, scope, location, community inclusion, affordability and care delivery.

When cities consider programs and policies, are opinions, input and feedback from older adults sought and incorporated into planning and execution of all initiatives? Ideally, domains of age-friendly cities will overlap and reinforce each other, according to Josephine Jackisch, a healthy aging and public health consultant in Denmark.

The Global Picture

While we may take some of these elements for granted – like sidewalk curb cuts for wheelchairs (thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act) – many places around the world are still in the early stages of planning for people with poor vision, hearing, mobility or limited function.

According to a report by McGraw Hill Financial, “people around the world believe governments are underinvesting in the infrastructure needed for cities to adapt and incorporate age-friendly design.” Globally, infrastructure, affordable, accessible housing, community health programs, employment opportunities, education and social services are lacking in many parts of Latin America, Africa and elsewhere.

Europe is more prepared than other parts of the world to develop age-friendly cities. The European Commission has identified healthy aging as one of three platforms to achieve as part of its Europe 2020 economic growth strategy. This Washington Post article looks at some other global age-friendly policies.

In their 2013 report, Community AGEnda noted, “What these diverse efforts share is an expressed desire to create places that support older adults and their families better, and enable older people to remain active, contributing members of their communities.” When reporting on these efforts, look around through the eyes of an older person. What works? What can be better?

In addition to the cities mentioned, here are some other age-friendly communities:

Additional Resources:


Ruth Finkelstein, Sc.D.
Associate director of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University, New York City, New York.

Margaret B. Neal, Ph.D.
Coordinator of the Age-Friendly Portland (AFP) Advisory Council, and director of Institute on Aging, Portland State University, Portland, Ore.
(503) 725-5145 

Allen Glicksman
Director of research & evaluation in the planning department of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, Philadelphia

Greg Shaw
‪Director, international & corporate relations, for the International Federation on Ageing (IFA), Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
(647) 504-2102