A team of local elders launched a five-year plan Thursday to make Akron a place where everyone ages in good health and comfort.
By taking the first step toward becoming an "age-friendly community," Akron joins 368 municipalities in America (and 96 in Ohio) to intentionally tackle the challenges and opportunities of a rapidly aging population.
The "age-friendly" designation — recognized by the World Health Organization and certified by the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) — is an inclusive attempt to make sidewalks wider and install entrance ramps so baby-strollers and wheelchairs alike can get by, to create hassle-free transportation options for residents headed to churches and grocery stores, to help homeowners and renters live without fear in safer communities or to implement countless other initiatives that benefit seniors by making the city better for everyone.
"The goal is to help people live easily and comfortably in their homes and communities where they age," said Susan Sigmon, a senior vice president at Direction Home Akron Canton Area Agency on Aging & Disabilities.
"It encourages people to take a more active role in their communities and have their voices heard. 'Age friendly' is a framework for us all to think about such things as housing, walkability, community engagement, volunteering, social inclusion and combating isolation among its residents — all things that this mayor has been focused (on)," Sigmon said, looking up from her notes at the Kenmore Community/Senior Center to acknowledge Mayor Dan Horrigan, who sat with her boss, Gary Cook, Ohio AARP Director Barbara Sykes and John Green, now the University of Akron's interim president for more than a year.
Year one of the strategic plan calls for an advisory commission co-chaired by Sigmon and Harvey Sterns, the director of the Institute for Life-Span Development and Gerontology at UA. The Akron residents serve on the city's 45-year-old Senior Citizens Commission, which Horrigan revived in 2016 after a decade of inactivity.
The age-friendly advisory commission will grow this year as UA performs a needs assessment with seniors via interviews, focus groups and mailed surveys.
In year two, the group will prioritize and implement programs and projects for years three, four and five, all the way to 2024.
Sykes, a former state lawmaker and City Council member whose husband and daughter are top-ranking Democrats in the Ohio House and Senate, leapt at the chance to celebrate the concerted effort to bring resources to bear on Akron. "We knew this day was going to come, that 50-plus was just going to take over," Sykes said, referring to the eligible age for AARP membership. "That's what's happening. It's taking over and that's just great news."
In the past decade, the portion of the population that is 50 and over has climbed from 30% to 34% in Akron, 34% to 39% in Summit County and 33% to 37% in Ohio, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
While Summit County is older on average and aging faster than Akron, there are unique challenges in the city. Older adults, elder advocates said, may feel trapped because their home values have withered, leaving them with less equity to cushion retirement.
Sykes, Sigmon and others approached Green and Horrigan separately in mid-2018 to pitch the age-friendly initiative in their hometown. Sykes brags about the program, which was adopted by UA in 2017. The university allows seniors to take free classes and provided $150,000 in grants to older, nontraditional students last year, Green said.
On Thursday, she said she stands fully behind Akron to create "the best age-friendly community in this country. Whatever you need, let us know. If you need planning, people to go through training or to conferences, even money, let us know. AARP will be there to help."
"To answer your question about whether we'll need a little money, yes," Horrigan said, getting a chuckle from a crowd of about 100 residents, elder advocates and senior service providers gathered in Kenmore, the only Akron neighborhood with a city-run community center dedicated to seniors.
"This was an easy decision," Horrigan said. "I do get a lot of pressure from my mom, who just turned 81. Over the years (she's asked) how am I staying in my house, how am I getting to places? What do we do? So there was a lot of pressure in the community. And I think it's good pressure because these are the things we need to do."
In the crowd, Jenny Clements, 88, seemed pleased.
"I think it's good," said the Firestone Park resident, who plans to drive herself to Kenmore for sewing, ceramics and other crafting activities for another year or two before hanging up her keys, selling her car and using the proceeds to call a cab.
Advocates stressed that it's the connections to community, family and each other that keep seniors from feeling despair and isolation. At the event, Ken Harmon sat at a row of tables with colleagues on the city's Senior Citizens Commission, which just wrapped up a yearlong community listening tour.
Housing and transportation were among the most common concerns, but awareness is the answer, he said.
"I think we need more communication with seniors to find out what they need," said the 68-year-old East Akron man. "Better communication so they understand the services and they are more informed."
For more information, call Direction Home at 800-421-7277 or check out the Age Friendly Akron Facebook page.
Reach Doug Livingston at email@example.com or 330-996-3792.