Pittsburgh is redefining what it means to grow old. Pennsylvania needs to follow suit | Ray E. Landis

The Pittsburgh skyline (Pittsburgh Current photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

Pennsylvania is not alone in contemplating how an aging population will impact our society. The World Health Organization established the concept of age-friendly communities in 2007. Since then, more than 1,000 communities across the world have adopted this designation, including six in Pennsylvania.

The biggest impact in the Commonwealth has come in southwestern Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh and Allegheny County have been national leaders in defining what being age-friendly can mean to a community through the Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh initiative.

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Partnership for Aging (SWPPA) has led this effort under the enthusiastic direction of Laura Poskin, helped by funding from the Mary Hillman Jennings Foundation. Poskin explained what an age-friendly designation involves.

“Accepting the designation of age-friendly is a community making a commitment that they will be more respectful and inclusive of factors involving aging when considering how the community will move forward” she said. “It’s looking at an aging population as an opportunity to make things better for everyone.”

Taking action to implement age-friendly initiatives can make an immediate impact, Poskin noted. “Installing or improving sidewalks makes it easier for older people to walk in their neighborhood, but it also makes it better for parents pushing a stroller. The goal is to make a community where everyone can live, both today and into the future, by designing the community for aging.”

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Creating a detailed planning document is a critical part of the age-friendly concept.  Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh put together a comprehensive action plan focusing on three areas:

  • Access: Ensuring the built environment, primarily housing and transportation, is considering the aging population as it expands
  • Connection: Looking at social connections to help to address one of the majors concerns of an aging population, the social isolation that plagues so many older residents of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
  • Innovation: Incorporating new ideas into development, particularly taking advantage of the rapid development of the tech industry in Pittsburgh

But Poskin pointed out the work really begins after the plan is developed.

“We’ve been fortunate to collaborate with more than 100 organizations and 800 individuals to begin to implement this action plan with more joining us every day,” she emphasized.

Increasing public awareness has meant trying innovative ideas.

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“We’ve been trying to make a splash and have what one of our collaborators, Lively Pittsburgh, calls ‘serious’ fun,” Poskin said. “We’ve partnered with Lively Pittsburgh to go out to dangerous intersections with a program known as The Crossings, where we sing and dance and call attention to pedestrian safety. We’ve been doing events we call #CoffeeConnectPGH, where we go to a local coffee shop and encourage people to put down their devices and engage in a conversation with their neighbors.”

A critical aspect of the development of Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh has been informing and involving elected officials.

Poskin pointed out “when we talk to elected officials, they invariably bring up personal stories that make them realize how their own families are impacted by the decisions about what they fund or don’t fund.And we also stress that the term “aging in place” is more about connectivity than simply the dwelling where someone lives, which broadens the discussion about housing policies.”

Poskin’s efforts on behalf of Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh are receiving recognition across the country.  She recently was invited to do a TEDx talk about the age-friendly concept, which can be viewed here.

In addition, she recently shared Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh’s progress with government officials and community leaders in Minnesota.

Gov. Tim Walz subsequently announced Minnesota has begun the process to become an age-friendly state, a step other states such as Colorado, Massachusetts, and New York have already taken.

Poskin believes the success of Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh should lead to a similar initiative in Pennsylvania.

“We know how important implementing age-friendly concepts could be to more areas in Pennsylvania, particularly rural communities where isolation is such a huge concern,” she said. “I think becoming an age-friendly state could jump start these efforts.”

Our elected officials at the state level must take a closer look at the success of Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh and recognize the need for similar conversations to occur in more communities.

Other states have recognized that leadership and resources for these efforts needs to come from the highest level – it’s time for Pennsylvania to declare that we will also join the World Health Organization’s initiative and become an age-friendly Commonwealth.

Capital-Star Opinion contributor Ray E. Landis is the former advocacy manager for the AARP of Pennsylvania. His work appears biweekly.