Gotham Gazette

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Aiming for an 'Age-Friendly' City

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Speaker Mark-Viverito (photo: William Alatriste)

NEW YORK—As New York City's population continues to grow, so does the number of its Baby Boomers. Of the city's 8.4 million residents, 2.6 million (31 percent) are age 50 or over, according to AARP. Brooklyn and Queens are home to the largest segments of the senior population, with 29 percent each.

The number of seniors over 60 is expected to increase by 50 percent by 2030, meaning elected officials must make adjustments to accommodate senior services. On Wednesday, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito laid out several new policy initiatives specifically aimed to aid this growing constituency.

"As a city, we should measure ourselves on how we help those who are most vulnerable – and our senior population is one of the most vulnerable among us," Mark-Viverito said an at an AARP/Governing Magazine roundtable on Wednesday. "We must protect the rights of our older New Yorkers to age in place with dignity."

The Speaker announced an expansion of the Council's age-friendly initiative and aims to establish age-friendly neighborhoods in 10 new districts. This initiative, in partnership with The New York Academy of Medicine and in conjunction with the Mayor's Office, was established in 2010. Mark-Viverito's own East Harlem district was part of the pilot program, along with the Upper West Side, and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

The Age-friendly Neighborhood Initiative brings together the senior population with policy makers and business leaders, helping communities craft policies tailored to meet the unique needs of older adults in each neighborhood.

Mark-Viverito said she saw the results in her own district with the expansion of special hours for seniors at the Thomas Jefferson Park Pool. Seniors at Union Settlement Jefferson Senior Center hadn't been using the pool (which was located just across the street) because the families and kids using the pool made them feel unsafe. The seniors boarded buses to go to a pool elsewhere.

At the age-friendly neighborhood initiative meetings, the issue was brought up and the pool changed their policy to designate senior-only hours. This policy change was so popular, it was later adopted as a citywide initiative.

Which districts will be in the program, how they will be selected, and by whom, has not yet been determined, according to a spokesperson for the Speaker. But Mark-Viverito said she is committed to bringing age-friendly initiatives to all 51 Council districts by 2018.

Helping Seniors in Poverty
One in five New York City households over the age of 65 lives in poverty, with Brooklyn and the Bronx reporting the highest rate at 26 and 25 percent respectively. As a senior, navigating what benefits one is eligible for and how one accesses those programs can be difficult, especially if much of that information is online.

According to Mark-Viverito, only 44 percent of eligible seniors in New York City are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). She also added that thousands of seniors could apply to have their rent locked in at affordable prices with the newly increased SCRIE regulations, but have yet to do so.

To help ease the process, the Council will partner with Hunter College's Silberman School of Social Work and the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging to explore better ways to help connect seniors with services and benefits.

'"We agree there is a lack of information out there around what services are available to older adults and what older adults are eligible for," Nancy Giunta, assistance professor at Hunter College's Silberman School of Social Work.

While many of the services are listed online, some seniors are not as computer savvy as their younger counterparts. Giunta said they have found that in their center older adults (and in some cases their caregivers) have difficulty using the websites and understanding the information they contain. As part of their college work, social work students at Hunter help seniors navigate sites and apply for any benefits they may be entitled to.

There are also programs like SMART-MH, a state-funded program which helps seniors battling mental health issues related to Superstorm Sandy. During program visits, workers are trained to not just deal with mental health problems, but also see if seniors qualify for other services and help them apply If they do.

Programs and partnerships such as these will be looked at carefully by the Council to try and further improve services for seniors.

Affordable Housing
Like virtually every New Yorker, seniors also struggle to find affordable housing. But often their choices are more limiting than the average New Yorker.

While a sixth-floor walk-up with laundry around the corner may work for the average 20- or 30-something, a senior in their 60s or 70s could have difficulties navigating stairs and distance. A trip to the laundry "just around the corner" for a senior can prove an arduous task.

In an ideal world the City would work to find ways to help seniors "age in place" which gives them the ability to live in their own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age. To do this, the City will need to work with the real estate industry and possibly lay out rules to make it easier for that to happen.

Mark-Viverito said in her speech on Wednesday that the Council will introduce legislation soon that will develop a guide for landlords and building owners aimed to help seniors. These best practices could include requiring handrails, larger door frames to fit wheelchairs, and other modifications to make it easier for seniors to continue to live comfortably in New York City.

"There are accommodations that need to be made in our housing to make it easier for seniors to age in place," Mark-Viverito said. "As we create housing, we should be taking into account accommodations that are needed because our population is aging."

by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette

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