Making an age-friendly Petaluma

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Petaluma should be a great place to grow up and grow old in. In other words, we should live in an age-friendly city.

Age-friendly is a world-wide movement focused on creating livable communities for people of all ages. It was formalized by the World Health Organization in 2006 and the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities was launched in 2012 to support the effort in this country.

To date, 336 U.S. communities and three states have committed to becoming age-friendly. Several Marin cities have joined the AARP Network. Healdsburg is the first Sonoma County city to make the commitment. I’d like Petaluma to be the second.

While there is no one-size-fits-all for age-friendly, engaged communities are working toward common goals. Age-friendly cities provide public spaces, both indoors and out, for people to gather. Affordable housing options are available for varying stages of life, often built close to urban cores.

Age-friendly streets and sidewalks are safe, and buildings are accessible for people of all ages and physical abilities. Public transportation provides alternatives to cars; walking and biking are encouraged. Intergenerational activities are highlighted as a way to combat social isolation. And opportunities are available for older adults to work for pay, if they choose, and to volunteer their skills and take an active role in their community.

Applying to join the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities would require a formal resolution from City Council and a commitment to developing a five-year plan that would incorporate age-friendly improvements into the fabric of our community. I expect the issue to be discussed at City Council’s goal setting session on April 6.

Joining the Age-Friendly Network would allow the city to tap into existing resources and make it easier to apply for grants to fund age-friendly projects. A task force of community champions is being formed to shepherd the movement locally. Please consider stepping up.

Pursuing age-friendly principles would provide a framework for Petaluma’s growth and enhance what is special about our community. Fortunately we won’t be starting from scratch. Age-Friendly Sonoma County will help. Petaluma’s Senior Advisory Committee is already sponsoring intergenerational activities.

Our farmers markets provide access to healthy foods and opportunities for social interaction. Last year’s LED Streetlight Retrofit made for safer streets. Volunteers are already making a difference at Mentor Me, the Petaluma People’s Services Center, and the Village Network. But we could do better.

There is an “8/80” axiom popular in the age-friendly movement: what’s good for an 8-year-old is good for an 80-year-old. Experts call these two age groups “indicator species.” When we design cities that take these two ages into account, then everyone in between benefits. That’s what I like about age-friendly – it’s human and it acknowledges that our physical and social environments have a huge impact on our health and well-being.

The age-friendly movement began out of necessity. By 2035 older people are expected to outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history, thanks to the aging of the baby boomers. While people are living longer, those extra years are not often lived in good health. Age-friendly was conceived to support older adults staying healthy and active for as long as possible. It turns out that the best way to “grow” healthy older adults is to support good health throughout the entire lifespan. That’s age-friendly.

Petaluma is in the thick of demographic change; we have a growing population of older adults. The median age in Petaluma is 42 which is approximately 16 percent higher than the California average of 36 (according to the 2013 American Communities Survey published by the U.S. Census Bureau). The percentage of older adults will continue to grow in our community, and you may find yourself among them.

We live in a youth-obsessed society; it’s easy to be in denial when it comes to aging. But aging will happen (which is good news, when compared to the alternative) and the vast majority of people age 50 and older want to age in their community for as long as possible. Now is the time to start envisioning your life as an older adult. How and where will you want to live? What will matter to you then?

(Kris Rebillot is the chair of the Petaluma Senior Advisory Committee.)

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