Learning From the World to Build Age-Friendly, Inclusive U.S. Communities

By Susan Mende

America is aging--with a rising number of people over 65. It’s a trend that is growing--by 2060, the number of older Americans is expected to more than double, rising from 14.5 percent of the population to nearly 24 percent.

We are not the only country experiencing this phenomenon. People around the world are living longer. While this demographic shift was first seen in high-income countries such as France and Japan, low- and middle-income countries are also now grappling with rapidly aging populations while many of them face a double disease burden of both communicable and chronic disease. Around the world, people and communities are finding new ways to harness the unprecedented opportunity and challenge of “the longevity revolution” in which life expectancy at birth in developed countries is longer than at any time in history.

Recognizing that there is much we can learn from other nations about how to help older generations thrive, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has been looking at solutions being tested abroad, and exploring how to bring them back to the U.S.

This has included collaborating with other organizations to surface promising programs and practices that could help us better meet the needs of older Americans:

  • Aging2.0, which connects innovators from around the world who are working to improve the lives of older adults, has identified a number of technology innovations from abroad that are helping older adults age in place, feel connected and continue to contribute to their families and communities. These are highlighted in the report, Snapshot of Global Innovation in Aging and Senior Care.
  • The AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities is an affiliate of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Age-Friendly Cities and Communities Program, an international effort launched in 2006 to help cities prepare for rapid population aging and the parallel trend of urbanization. With RWJF’s support, Grantmakers in Aging is scanning WHO’s network for age friendly approaches from abroad that can be adapted here to further the work U.S. communities are taking to be inclusive of all ages.

We’re also piloting some promising international programs in the U.S. For example, AgeWell, a model that began in South Africa, employs older adults to help seniors who are at risk. They visit them in their home, providing companionship and gathering information on their health and social problems, entering it into a smartphone app which triggers referral recommendations to healthcare and social services providers. The goal is to improve mental health and well-being, and reduce emergency room attendance and incidence of primary hospital admissions. RWJF is working with AgeWell as they start pilots in Cleveland, Ohio, Florida and New York.

It’s clear there is much we can learn from other countries about improving the health and wellbeing of older adults. Building a Culture of Health, where everyone has the opportunity to live a healthy, productive, and satisfying life—no matter where you live, how much you earn, or how old you are--will take the best ideas the world has to offer.

Join me for a March 27 workshop, Partnership for Healthy Outcomes: Bridging Community-Based Human Services and Health Care, part of the Managed Care Academy during the upcoming Aging in America Conference taking place in San Francisco, where we will be discussing what the world can teach us about healthy aging. You won't want to miss it!

Susan Mende, BSN, MPH, is a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.