Checklists alone cannot create age-friendly places: lived experiences matter

Age-Friendly Cities aspire to create an inclusive and accessible environment for all, where “policies, services and structures related to the physical and social environment are designed to support and enable older people to ‘age actively’” (WHO, 2007). Closely aligned with ideas for the creation of liveable, sustainable and harmonious cities, it was the World Health Organisation (WHO) that first suggested the term in the late 2000s. Devised and developed on the experiences of thirty three cities around the world; a universally applicable checklist of eight core Age-Friendly features was developed as part of the Age-Friendly Cities Guide which, when applied, should create an Age-Friendly environment. The movement now comprises a network of over 250 cities and communities.

Joining the network of Age-Friendly Cities in 2010, Manchester was the first city in the UK to be recognised as Age-Friendly. Coordinated by Public Health Manchester, the adoption of the WHO’s Age-Friendly framework builds on Manchester’s long standing approach to ageing, spearheaded by the Valuing Older People programme established in 2012 and the ten-year Manchester Ageing Strategy. Since joining the Age-Friendly Network, Manchester has, amongst other things, established an Older Peoples Board, invested in an Age-Friendly branding strategy and forged collaborations across social, cultural, educational and health institutions. The development of the Greater Manchester Ageing Hub is the latest iteration of this entrepreneurial spirit. Manchester City Council argues that, with a wealth of experience under its belt, Greater Manchester is in a unique position to become the UK’s first Age-Friendly city region and a national leader on ageing in place. Manchester has secured a position as a high-flyer on the international Age-Friendly stage. These developments should be applauded, but how can we build on this to consider the gaps that the broad-brush approach of an Age-Friendly checklist misses?

Valuing Difference

Despite these successes, the universal checklist approach of the Age-Friendly guide can be self-limiting. It carries an inherent risk in that a fixation with checking boxes diverts attention from equally important dimensions that are specific to people in place. This should in no way be perceived as a rejection of the importance of the factors listed in the Age-Friendly Guide, but rather suggests that to become universally applicable, the quirks and individualities of people and their cities are necessarily overlooked. With adherence to these Age-Friendly principles emerging as a badge of civic pride, it is pivotal that we do not forget to look critically at these local specificities.

Recent studies have critiqued the Age-Friendly approach for presenting an idealised version of the city and have highlighted a need to engage with what has been termed ‘lived experience’ – the ever-changing day-to-day realities that we each experience – which is able to capture what makes us, and our cities distinct. In this vein, researchers have argued that people do not grow old in a vacuum, highlighting the importance of particular places in sustaining senses of individual and community identity and belonging.

My own research has highlighted the sheer variation bound into older people’s lived experiences which are shaped by a variety of personal, social, cultural, economic, political and economic factors. For instance, in one piece of research, older people described how they felt excluded on a road that was once the heart of their community but is now lined with estate agents and other services/shops that were of no relevance to them. This, of course, was not the case for all, with some residents recounting a fondness for the same area, which was read through on-going family ties and associated memories. The point here is that each individual has a unique system of personal meaning that often positively affects their sense of place. Whilst it is impossible for policy-makers to ever fully account for such complexity in older people’s lives, an awareness and sensitivity toward the shared aspects of local lived experience – collective memories, emotions, feelings and attachments – can certainly make a difference to a community’s sense of place. Whether it is through music, serving a particular type of food, or looking after sites of value, we can only understand the requirements of place-specific interventions through engaging with older people in place. In doing so we can move from the broad-brush approach of creating Age-Friendly Cities to more nuanced Age-Friendly Places.

Moving Forward

In order to begin to address these overlooked factors, we need to influence how councils approach the Age-Friendly Guide. Whilst its interventions are progressive, it should be understood as simply the beginnings to Age-Friendliness, which ultimately needs to address more contextual, local, individual challenges. It is through this shared dialogue and understanding that a more nuanced approach can cultivate sense of place. Key questions in Age-Friendly policy development need to be: how do we capture and accommodate these differences? Does the Age-Friendly City model work equally well for minority groups? Does the context of devolution present an opportunity for the development of a place-sensitive Age-Friendly policy development? How can these less tangible ideas be mobilised and instrumental in a policy context?

As the Greater Manchester Ageing conference unfolds, these questions need to be at the forefront of our discussions. Cities must look to what makes their older people unique. In moving beyond the universal baseline of the Age-Friendly Cities checklist, it is only then that they will be able to make older people feel at home where they are.

This post originally appeared on Policy@Manchester. Click here to read the original.