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No city for old people – POLITICO

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This article is part of POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab, a collaborative journalism project exploring the future of cities. Login here.

Cities look different for older people.

Subway stations are only pleasant when they have a working escalator and reaching the platform doesn’t require the help of a passing stranger. The best parks are those with exercise machines suitable for older bodies; The friendliest neighborhoods are those with slick sidewalks.

These aren’t details that most working-age people pay attention to as they navigate cities – yet they make a big difference for an older demographic. As Europe’s population ages, they will also be key factors determining a city’s quality of life.

2021, more than 20 percent of the bloc’s population was 65 and older, making it the oldest continent in the world. By 2050, almost one in three EU citizens will be in this age group.

This poses a major challenge for EU cities, which currently lack the services and infrastructure to meet the needs of older people.

“COVID has been a wake-up call for cities because it has forced them to pay attention to the elderly, the group most at risk in the pandemic,” said Kira Fortune, regional adviser to the World Health Organization’s Healthy Cities Network, a global initiative to promote Measures to improve well-being in urban landscapes.

“Local leaders are now realizing they need to work with city planners and overhaul public policy so these people are not left behind.”

start small

The most urgent changes are often the most mundane.

“Sidewalks need to be tended and potholes need to be fixed,” as Fortune pointed out, since a minor fall can have serious consequences for an elderly person.

Making cities more user-friendly for older people also means investing in infrastructure, “like benches for older adults to rest on while strolling,” she added.

Some EU cities are already using innovative tactics to make streets more welcoming for older people. Breda, in the Netherlands, used machines too smooth the cobblestones in its medieval quarter to make the neighborhood more accessible to elderly and disabled residents.

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Elderly people in Udine, Italy, take part in a city-sponsored exercise initiative in a public park. | Riccardo Riva, Office of the Healthy City of Udine

Others have focused on mobility. Last week, Lisbon announced that residents over 65 would no longer have to pay to access the city’s metro system, public buses, most train lines and the city’s iconic yellow tram network.

Fortune of the WHO said policies that allow easy access to transportation are key to keeping older people active and involved in public life.

“We should definitely make buses and trams more user-friendly for older people, but also follow the example of places like London that have tried to encourage active mobility cycling initiatives targeting that group,” she said.

Independent but not alone

One of the biggest challenges for EU cities is accommodating aging city dwellers who do not want to spend their golden years in retirement homes but risk becoming isolated.

“Older adults now don’t want to be like their parents — they’re determined to remain self-sufficient,” Fortune said. “That doesn’t mean that they want to live alone: ​​There’s a lot of interest in communal living.”

In Ljubljana, the city authorities are trying to accommodate this desire by reserving social housing for the elderly.

Simona Topolinjak, State Secretary for Health and Welfare in Ljubljana, said the city has also set up a program whereby older adults can sell their apartments to the city’s housing authority in exchange for a monthly rent and the right to stay in that accommodation for the rest of their lives .

“We want older people to have the right to decide for themselves where and how they want to live in old age,” Topolinjak said.

In the Italian city of Udine, where 27 percent of the population is over 65, local leaders say their goal is to help older people live independently without feeling alone.

“Most of our elderly residents are women living alone and we are aware that loneliness can contribute to health problems such as dementia,” said Stefania Pascut, who coordinates the Healthy Cities project in Udine. “We’ve put in place a number of relief structures to make sure someone will come by and help these people with things like grocery shopping or small repairs at home.”

The city has also set up a range of public activities, such as art classes and open-air exercises, to get elderly residents out of their homes and socialize with others.

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Elderly people in Udine, Italy, take part in a city-sponsored exercise initiative in a public park. | Riccardo Riva, Office of the Healthy City of Udine

“Sometimes we forget that older people like to have fun, too,” says Pascut. “By giving them the opportunity to engage in play activities, we let them experience the city better and keep them moving, which is good for their health.”

place at the table

Although the older generation is one of the most active voting blocs in the EU, their specific needs are often overlooked in the political decision-making process.

A growing number of EU cities are now setting up older people’s advisory bodies to give older citizens a voice in local legislation and town planning.

“There’s a growing recognition that older adults need a seat at the table,” Fortune said. “Decisions cannot only be made by experts.”

Pascut, from Udine, said it has become more important to allow older people to play an active role in public life since the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, a strange kind of discrimination has emerged from the lockdowns,” she said. “A lot of young people started getting angry with their elders and blaming them for the mobility restrictions and everything else.”

Pascut is trying to combat this trend with programs that encourage generations to interact, like a volunteer program for older people in local schools and a youth-led initiative to teach digital literacy to seniors.

“Because we live long, it’s the first time in history that so many generations share our cities, but paradoxically, the different age groups don’t tend to mix,” she said.

“We are trying to change that because the interactions are mutually beneficial: Older adults feel joy when they meet the young, and the young get access to the experiences and traditional knowledge of the older and see examples of people who are good aging,” Pascut added.

Fortune argues that building age-friendly cities will not only benefit older people, but also, in the long term, younger generations as they age.

Achieving this goal also requires investments that go beyond immediate support for older populations and address deeper systemic inequalities that impact aging.

“Tackling poverty early can make a big difference in terms of a person’s health later in life,” she said — particularly for women, who tend to live longer than men.

“We need to ensure these issues are addressed at the points in life where people are most vulnerable, as these inequalities accumulate and become more difficult to address later on.”

Giovanna Coi contributed coverage to this article.

This article is produced with full editorial independence from POLITICS reporters and editors. Learn more about editorial content presented by external advertisers.

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