Opinion: With the number of older residents growing, Berkeley must design for their well-being

There are steps Berkeley can take – like increasing the pedestrian signal time at intersections –that will make it a more amenable place for older residents.

You’ve heard it before: the world is on the brink of a demographic milestone. While today roughly one in seven Americans is age 65 or older, this population will double by 2060 and California has the most elders of any state. By 2050, the number of centenarians—those age 100+—will have increased 1000%.

 The Bay Area’s senior moment(um). Older adults are the fastest-growing segment of the population in the Bay Area, growing 14% in three years (2x more than any other age group). In Berkeley, people 65 and older were the only growing segment of Berkeley’s population from 2000 to 2010, the latest census available census data. The number of older adults grew from 10.2 % of the population in 2000 to 11.7% in 2010.

 Berkeley, the birthplace of the Independent Living movement has the chance to become a leader again. Without Berkeley, we might not have the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Berkeley should step up and become again a leader in a movement that promotes an inclusive and accessible environment for people of all ages and abilities.

Cities must be our allies as we age. Berkeley has challenges—hills, walk-ups, limited accessible housing stock. We must design cities, homes, and workplaces to be adaptable to changing personal needs. “Don’t just design for aging populations and their survival; design for their thrival,” said Chris Luebkeman, ARUP Fellow/Global Director of Foresight, Research + Innovation, ARUP, in a recent presentation at the invitation of the nonprofit AtHomeWithGrowingOlder at IDEO.

Our imperative: From July 23-27, the 21st World Congress on Gerontology & Geriatrics will come to San Francisco. More than 6,000 professionals from around the world who work in, advocate for, and research aging will gather. Since this conference is held in the U.S. only once every 32 years, now is the time to join our movement and share your thoughts on how to future-proof our cities and ourselves with local startups, political representatives, and organizations. Here are some ideas:

  1. Ensure accessibility is about more than crossing streets. Kudos to SF for stretching the pedestrian signal time from 4.0 feet per second to 2.5. That allows people who walk more slowly enough time to cross a busy intersection. We need to do more. Now. While we often think about accessibility when it comes to building and other built spaces, what about the accessibility of services, natural resources, and more? What do you want Berkeley to do to ensure its built spaces, services, and natural resources are accessible, regardless of age, ability, or economic situation?
  2. Strengthen the new social security. Loneliness is a worldwide epidemic that disproportionately affects older adults. Yet, having stronger social ties is linked with better longevity as well as better cognitive and physical health. Many older Berkeley residents live isolated in their long-term homes in the Berkeley Hills. Moving in Berkeley is expensive. Zoning laws make private initiatives for community living difficult. What do you want to see Berkeley do to help us find and refresh social networks in our later years?
  3. Be prepared for the potential consequences of climate change: In the summer of 2003, Europe faced a dramatic heatwave resulting in 15,000-19,000 deaths in France alone—primarily older adults. In the Bay Area, our climate is changing, too. San Francisco typically has 12 days over 80 degrees, expected to increase to 32-46 days by 2050. What emergency preparedness plans do you want to see in place?

Marie Jobling is the executive director of Community Living Campaign, Cathy Spensley is the director of the senior division of the Felton Institute, and Susanne Stadler is the executive director of At Home With Growing Older.