KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Making a city more amenable to the needs of its aging residents can help make it healthier for all, according to experts at a “smart growth” conference held here last week.
Organized by the Local Government Commission, a nonprofit based in Sacramento, Calif., the three-day conference at the Kansas City Convention Center drew about 1,100 people from across the country.
“What’s good for the 50-plus population, the 60-plus population, the 70-plus population, is also good for youngsters, teens, the 20-somethings, the 30-somethings…,” said Kent Sovern, Iowa State Director for AARP.
Amy Levner, an outreach manager in AARP’s Washington, D.C., office, agreed.
“Think about things like traffic signals and getting across the street,” she said.
For example, adding time to the “walk” sign benefits a senior citizen as much as it helps a mother with a young child, she said.
AARP has a new website dedicated to the concept of communities more livable. It includes a section on health.
AARP also is working with other partners as part of a public-private effort in Iowa to advance some of the concepts.
The Healthiest State Initiative aims to improve Iowa’s 16th place ranking on the Well-Being Index. Healthways, a healthcare consulting company based in Franklin, Tenn., developed the index working with Gallup, the polling and management-consulting firm.
Part of the Iowa initiative is an exercise program known as the Blue Zones Project, which includes Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, a health insurance plan that has more than two million members in Iowa and South Dakota.
Blue Zones, which Healthways initiated with three communities in California, emphasizes natural movement for exercise — walking, for example, as opposed to lifting weights. In Iowa, the project includes 19 communities.
Blue Zones could be something for Kansas City, too, said Cathy Boyer-Shesol, who attended the conference as the project manager for KC4 Aging in Community, a program of the Mid-America Regional Council.
Started in 2008 with a grant from the Jewish Heritage Foundation to the Center for Practical Bioethics, one focus of the program is to help communities establish amenities for all generations.
For example, good sidewalks not only help a senior citizen using a walker, they also provide a safe way for students to walk to school. Walkability, she said, meshed with the Blue Zone goal of promoting natural exercise.
“This is a solution,” she said of the Blue Zones, “something that people are doing, and doing it quickly.”
KC4 Aging in Community just concluded focus groups with residents in Gladstone and Raytown, on the Missouri side of the state line, and in northeast Johnson County, Kan.
The focus groups included people of all ages.
“They (the participants) all referenced how important it is to be able to walk in their own neighborhood,” Boyer-Shesol said.
Among the things discussed at the conference was the idea of including health components in the comprehensive planning documents adopted by communities.
Resources and examples for doing that already exist, including the Planning and Community Health Research Center of the American Planning Association. The March 2012 plan adopted by the city of El Paso, Tex. was mindful of health issues.
Carlos Gallinar, the El Paso deputy director for planning, said the rule of thumb used by planners in his city was that most people wouldn’t walk more than 10 minutes to a destination.
“After 10 minutes,” he said, “forget about it — you are going to get in your car.”
Julie Fitzgerald, a city council member from Wilsonville, Ore., which is about 20 miles south of Portland, said perhaps communities should recognize champions of prevention in the same way they celebrate researchers who make medical breakthroughs in treating disease.
Prevention, Fitzgerald said, “may not sound as great as curing cancer, but it may have as big of an impact.”