It turns out that communities that are good for older people are actually good for people of all ages, according to Mim Evans, a senior researcher at the NIU Center for Governmental Studies (CGS).
Evans says communities that are designated “age-friendly” are also often called “livable communities” because they provide a healthy and positive environment for all people. “A number of surveys, in particular done by the National Association of Realtors, asked people of all ages what they were looking for in a community and found that there were many overlaps,” she says. These included safe and affordable housing, quality health care, transportation, outdoor space, environmental quality, and chances to socialize and get involved in public life.
This is good news for the U.S. in general and for the state of Illinois, both of which are experiencing a shift toward an older population.
According to Evans, “The Chicago Metro Area Planning Group (CMAP), estimates that there will be an 80% growth in residents 65 plus in the Chicago area by 2050. And our own research at CGS indicates that in 2019 people over age 65 made up a quarter of the population in five Illinois counties. By 2029 – which is not very far off – that number will likely be as high as 23 counties having at least a quarter of their population 65 plus.”
Evans says this demographic shift, which is affecting both urban and rural areas, leads to a central question: “How do we make our communities better suited as a place for older residents, not just to live but also to be valued and active participants in community life?”
The city of Woodstock, Illinois, is one municipality that has decided to proactively court older residents by earning an official age-friendly designation from the AARP. The city won a Transformational Grant from the Community Foundation for McHenry County to fund their age-friendly livable community initiative.
That’s where the NIU Center for Governmental Studies comes in. As part of the two-year grant project, CGS will guide Woodstock through a three-step process to identify the community’s current strengths, define the needs of Woodstock’s older population and their population overall, and create a roadmap of actions and policies the community can take.
“Woodstock is one of the first communities in Illinois that is trying to formally adopt a livable community action plan that they can then implement in the coming years,” says Evans. “CGS’s role here – and often in communities around our region – is to provide technical assistance to supplement their own staff’s abilities and help them develop policies.”
While CGS has not yet completed the work of identifying Woodstock’s current strengths and needs, Evans notes that the town of about 25,000 residents has a lot of positive qualities it can build on. “It’s a lovely community with a charming downtown, shops, and a strong arts base with the Woodstock Opera House and active writers and artists groups. They’re on the Metra commuter line, which enables residents to easily reach Chicago and everything in between.”
Once CGS has finished identifying Woodstock’s current strengths and areas for improvement in relation to the livable community criteria, the next step will be to identify the needs of Woodstock’s older residents and their overall population.
“Whenever we can find connections between what will be beneficial to an older population and what will also fit well for the younger population, we want to start there,” Evans says. “Those can be some of the very first things that a community may try and implement to generate community support and get the best results for their investment.”
The final step will be to leave the city with a set of specific policies, as well as actions and strategies to take to implement those policies.
“Our goal is to leave them with not just a roadmap for how to get where they want to go, but also some ideas of how to progress down that roadmap, including the people who can help them to get there,” says Evans. CGS will be working not only with City of Woodstock officials, but also with a local steering committee of leaders and experts in serving the elderly who can provide local knowledge every step of the way.
Evans commends Woodstock for pursuing a livable community plan and hopes the town will be a model for other communities in Illinois.
“This is actually a wonderful time for communities to reconsider the needs of their older residents,” she says. “The pandemic has brought the needs of the older population to the forefront even more than they were before. I think this will lead to changes in the way people think about where they want to live as they get older and the way their older relatives live. These changes really have the potential to benefit the community as a whole and provide a more balanced approach to the economy that benefits all residents.”
Learn more about the NIU Center for Governmental Studies at cgs.niu.edu.