TOPICS > Health

Age Friendly New York City Helps Seniors Stay Active in the Big Apple

September 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Seniors now account for roughly one out of every six New Yorkers. A recent initiative aims to assist older citizens stay healthy, active and connected to the community. Hari Sreenivasan reports on how that program has been making New York more accessible and affordable for its elders.

GWEN IFILL: Now we continue our occasional look at aging and the challenges of long-term care.

Tonight, Hari Sreenivasan reports on a push to make New York City more livable in later years.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s 9:30 in the morning in East Harlem, New York City, and the Thomas Jefferson Pool is springing to life.

WOMAN: Take the plunge. Come on.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Several dozen seniors have come to take the plunge, and take part in the pool’s senior swim hours; 72-year-old Maria Pacheco, who takes attendance, comes three times a week.

MARIA PACHECO: People socialize. And being around people their own age — our age, I should say — you are not self-conscious of who’s looking. And here, nobody’s comparing you to anyone else.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Jefferson Pool was the first to offer the senior swim hours. Now there are 15, with more than 1,000 seniors participating. It’s Pacheco’s third summer here at Jefferson. It helps keep her days busy.

So, you’re volunteering, you are teaching seniors, you are taking a swim class. You are pretty active.

MARIA PACHECO: I don’t want to get old, and this does it for you, being involved into everything.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And that’s becoming easier to accomplish thanks to a recent initiative to make the city more livable for seniors. They now account for roughly one out of every six New Yorkers.

Age-Friendly New York City was launched in 2009 with $4 million that was provided by the mayor’s office, the New York City Council and the New York Academy of Medicine, along with the assistance from many foundation grants.

LINDA GIBBS, Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services: The population that is 65 and older has just surpassed the population that is 18 and younger.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Linda Gibbs is the city’s deputy mayor for health and human services.

LINDA GIBBS: What we’re really trying to do is change the culture of the city as a whole so that we — instead of seeing elderly New Yorkers as a deficit, as a problem to be solved, instead, we say the world is fundamentally a changing place. We’re living longer, we’re living healthier, and older New Yorkers now are here in numbers that have surpassed anything in history.

RUTH FINKELSTEIN, New York Academy of Medicine: These programs are working.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One key ingredient to the initiative is listening to seniors, according to Ruth Finkelstein Of The New York Academy Of Medicine. She leads the initiative’s private sector efforts.

RUTH FINKELSTEIN: Everything we do is grounded in the perspectives and voices of older adults. The first thing that they have to realize is, we don’t stand in the shoes of the people that we’re addressing and that we need first and foremost to understand the city through their perspective.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The program is now up and running in all five boroughs, including Manhattan, where we met up with Ed and Sarah Aarons. They can’t imagine living anywhere but here.

ED AARONS: It’s all near what’s happening, what’s happening in the world. I can’t conceive of adjusting to anyplace else, and I can’t conceive of having the facilities and conveniences and the excitement in other places.

SARAH AARONS: The only two places he would like to live the rest of his life is in New York or Paris.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sarah, who’s 93, and Ed, 85, have lived in the same Upper West Side apartment for 50 years. Sarah now gets around on a motorized chair. We tagged along with her while she ran errands around her neighborhood. Most of the city buses can now kneel down to make it easier for Sarah to roll on and off.

SARAH AARONS: Thank you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But there are still challenges for Sarah and for the city.

SARAH AARONS: I can’t get up on this side. It’s too high, so I have to go around this way and get into traffic.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It spent millions on infrastructure changes spread across many agencies. But while more than 100 intersections have been redesigned to include longer crossing times and cuts in the curb to make it easier to navigate, there are thousands left to make the whole city more senior-friendly.

But it is working in East Harlem, where we toured with Finkelstein.

If I look at this whole corner, I have got a — in the shelter, I have got a bench so that a senior can sit. I have got glass so that they feel safe. I have got shade for from so that they don’t feel too hot. They have got cutouts so that they can use their ramps, their walkers.

WOMAN: How are you today?

HARI SREENIVASAN: For seniors like the Aarons, being able to get out and about to do their errands is essential to staying out of assisted living.

SARAH AARONS: You go there, and everybody has white hair. They don’t look like they are enjoying life. To me, to be able to do things yourself, rather than have something done for you, you know, to try your best to do as much for yourself as possible.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Age-Friendly also partners with the private sector to help businesses better serve older customers. The changes are simple: better lighting, a place to sit, and larger fonts so seniors can see what’s available. Local stores like Fairway Markets offer shuttle buses and in-store assistance.

LINDA GIBBS: If you are in the retail business and you want to serve a meal and you want to cut hair and you want to, you know, offer supplies, you know, you have got to think about who is in the city buying.

HARI SREENIVASAN: More than 1,000 businesses have now signed up for the program.

MAN: At home, you’re going to be paying for an Internet service provider.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In their talks with seniors, the collaboration also found there was an increasing technology gap. This technology lab, Senior Planet, is the first technology-themed center for people over 60 in the country. New York City is arguably the most diverse on the planet, and creating a program that was inclusive to everyone was essential.

RUTH FINKELSTEIN: Affordability is a huge issue for older adults, and it’s not adequate to make a city work well for only for people with means.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But it’s been a challenge that goes beyond curb cuts. They want to find a way to make the city more affordable for all seniors.

RUTH FINKELSTEIN: In New York, I have to say, housing is so difficult. We have ideas that we haven’t yet implemented, but the essential basic price of real estate, how expensive it is to be housed in New York, is a challenge that I don’t feel that we have addressed adequately.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And the need for these types of changes isn’t just in New York City, according to Dr. Linda Fried, the dean of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

DR. LINDA FRIED, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health: The aging of the population is one of the most significant historic shifts in the history of the world, and what we’re going to see is what countries all over the world are seeing, which is that we are living longer lives.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This summer, a delegation from Hong Kong visited to get tips on making their city more age-friendly. Dozens of other cities across the U.S. and around the world have started their own plans or used the city as a model. According to Deputy Mayor Gibbs, the reason it’s worked in New York is because they started allocating resources differently.

LINDA GIBBS: While there are some additional costs associated with the program, overwhelmingly, what we ask agencies to do is think about what you are doing already, and can you do it in a way that is more age-sensitive, so that when you do the repaving, when you do the new curbs, when you spend your money on your senior centers, why not spend it in a different way? And this way, I think, is very replicable.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And there are benefits that aren’t limited to just seniors.

LINDA FRIED: The dirty little secret on this planning is that, from my point of view, anything you design that will facilitate access, engagement, safety, enjoyment, and participation by older people turns out to be good for all age groups.

So you are not designing just for one age group, but you are ensuring the engagement and contributions of all age groups by doing that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Meanwhile, on this hot day in New York, the seniors all here at the Jefferson Pool agree, so far, they’re in step with all the changes.