Healthy Communities and Older Adults

Social capital is “the degree of social cohesion which exists in communities, the processes between people which establish networks, norms and social trust, and facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit”.
~ World Health Organization (WHO) 1998

Healthy communities possess a wealth of social capital. The Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition describes some of the key characteristics of a healthy community as follows:
–       Providing opportunities for life long learning and skill development
–       Ensuring that all residents are able to meet their basic needs
–       Being treated with respect regardless of differences
–       A high level of safety perceived by its residents
–       A strong cultural and spiritual life
–       A high degree of cooperation and collaboration between organizations and institutions

A great example of a healthy community that supports older adults is highlighted in an article on Daily Good called How Social Connections Keep Seniors Healthy. An intentional community called Potluck Farm in North Carolina has created a community called Elderberry that allows older adults to “continue to live in [the] community when [they] become unable to care for [their] homes, gardens, animals, and, ultimately, [them]selves”. Elderberry is described as “an elder cohousing community for individuals who wish to live out their senior years (50+) in an affordable, energy-efficient home in a beautiful, rural setting, supported by friends and neighbors”.

Embracing the characteristics of a healthy community Elderberry “is managed by the residents, and residents are encouraged to continue to be productive by pursuing their passions and contributing to the community. Elderberry members are encouraged to contribute their skills in areas such as cooking, cleaning, gardening, maintenance, laundry, canning, crafts, etc. The hope is that much of the food eaten at Elderberry will be grown and harvested at Elderberry and Potluck Farm”.

The benefits of a healthy community are numerous for older adults. Drexel University School of Public Health has been conducting studies regarding the effects of social capital on older adults. A studied entitled ‘Neighbourhood Social Capital, Health and Aging’ found that individuals who live in areas with high social capital experience better physical mobility than older adults who live in low social capital areas. Principal Investigator Yvonne Michael explains that “Living in a place with greater social capital—where there is more trust and more helpful neighbors—you will feel more comfortable walking around to get to places you need to go, which helps you stay mobile.”

The World Health Organization recognized the importance of healthy communities for older adults in 2008 when it identified the following eight age-friendly issues in its Global Age Friendly Cities Guide.

  1. Outdoor spaces and buildings
  2. Transportation
  3. Housing
  4. Social participation
  5. Respect and social inclusion
  6. Civic participation and employment
  7. Communication and information
  8. Community support and health services

As Bernard Isaacs opined “design for the young and you exclude the old. Design for the old and you include everyone.” To ensure friendly, nurturing and safe neighbourhoods for all ages, we need to become active members of our community. Is there one of the WHO’s list of eight issues that need to be addressed where you live?

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