A University of Illinois research center is finding ways to help Champaign-Urbana's older population, while looking ahead to what Gen Xers will want to age comfortably in the future. C-U has been recognized as an age-friendly community by World Health Organization Age Friendly and AARP Livable Communities, and is now implementing programs to support older people in our community thanks to an effort through Center for Health, Aging, and Disability (CHAD) within the College of Applied Health Sciences.

Wendy Bartlo, Proposal Development and Outreach Specialist at CHAD, says Age-Friendly Champaign-Urbana is active in improving the community for older people today and in the future, but being age-friendly is not just a designation. “The AARP doesn’t want you to say, ‘We’re age-friendly, see?’ and stop there,” said Bartlo. “It’s a public commitment to be comfortably livable for people of all ages, and that’s going to look different for every city.”

The plan started when university retiree and community member Kathleen Holden, founding director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the U of I, approached CHAD to help lead the effort.

In 2017 after applying for age-friendly status, the team started collecting data. “We did a survey of 500 older people, but it was a skewed sample because we got a lot of retired professors,” said Bartlo. “We’re actively partnering with organizations like the Housing Authority of Champaign County; people who can connect us with lower income and racial and ethnic minority seniors.”

What came from that connection is learning that older people who are lower income or have less education don’t feel as safe or as included in our community. “They don’t think there are as many public bathrooms available to them, they don’t have the perception that there are as many places to sit down as wealthier people."

"If people think that they can’t go to the bathroom, if they don’t think there’s a place for them to sit down in public, if they don’t think they can get there, are they going to keep going out? We don’t want people to feel more isolated in their homes.”

As a result, inclusion is first piece of the Age-Friendly Champaign-Urbana Action Plan for the next three years. “How can we create a community where everyone feels safe, included, and feels like their voices are heard,” asked Bartlo. Partner organizations, and university research and technology development have been key to those questions.

“Here in Champaign-Urbana we have the only AARP office that is on a college campus. It’s at the Research Park and they do a lot of technology work, they host interns from engineering to work for them.” The university’s Collaborations in Health Aging Research and Technology is building a Life Home to test in-home technology for older adults and people with limited mobility. “They’re exploring how to support people in their homes through things like Amazon Echo,” said Bartlo. “How can they age in place, and also make sure that those technologies don’t isolate them in their homes?”

Bartlo expects housing to be a major issue for our community as older adults become a larger population in Champaign-Urbana. “We don’t have the rental stock that a city like Chicago has for adults. A lot of the rental housing here is geared toward students, which is not necessarily what an older person will want,” said Bartlo. “People are going to want condos with one floor that’s accessible, but not in the same space as a bunch of undergrads. A lot of people don’t want to live in a single-family house because it’s a lot of maintenance and they don’t want to worry about a yard, or they want to live somewhere else for half the year. Affordable housing for older adults will become very important. We have a number of older adults living below the poverty line who still need accessible safe places to live.”

Second to come out of the data is transportation. “We found in the survey that older people are not taking the bus, they’re not using Uber,” said Bartlo. “There are limits to options for volunteer transportation to get older people to medical appointments and grocery shopping. We’ve been working with MTD to get out the word about their DASH Pass, but what we’re finding is that a lot of older people don’t want to ride the bus. Maybe because they don’t know how to get on and off, they don’t know where they’re going, they’re afraid of looking foolish. One of the things in the plan is to develop a Bus Buddy program where younger people go out with older people and show them how to take a route. If they have an ability issue, they can show them how to get on and off the bus.”

“Think about how cities are changing,” said Bartlo. “A lot of cities are not looking to add more parking. They’re looking to add things like drop off spaces for Uber, they want people to use public transportation. Seniors care a lot about parking spots and getting places, but how can we get them to explore other avenues of transportation?”

“We aren’t just thinking about older people today. The first Gen Xer turns 50 in 2021. They’re going to want different things; they’re going to have different priorities. People who are 50 will be more comfortable using [ride share]. The digital natives are getting older, and we need to plan not just for the older people now but older people 10 to 20 years from now.”

The third focus in the action plan is communication. “People want information about how to do fun things. There have been a lot of senior resource guides that are good information, but for a long time they were only printed material, which is difficult to update, and they focus a lot on resources and not a lot on fun things to do,” said Bartlo.

“We approached chambanamoms, and they’re developing ChambanaSeniors to launch this fall. It will like chambanamoms, but focus more on older adults and their families. It will be a mix of resources and fun things to do, activities, and events like they do for chambanamoms. There will be resources for caregivers, but a lot of people said they’re interested in finding things like ‘Where can I go dancing, and when I go there is there enough parking? If I go to a concert in Hessel Park, is there a bathroom?’ They have the capacity to do this kind of thing and to do it well.”

“Older people in our community want to feel safe, they want to be included” reiterated Bartlo. “They want fun things to do. There’s a misconception that old age is just about doctor’s appointments, but these are adults with full lives who want to connect socially with other people.”

Thankfully, in a college town there a lot of opportunities to connect socially. “There’s a lot of stuff going on,” said Bartlo. “[Through] the parks districts, the libraries, Clark-Lindsey and their community outreach like Ethel & Maud’s lunch. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and the University of Illinois Extension office does a lot of good programming for older adults. There is a lot of nice low-cost programming in the community.”

“Both mayors have been very supportive of this effort in both the cities,” said Bartlo. “There are a lot of people in this community that care about older adults.”

You can read more about the Age-Friendly Champaign-Urbana Action Plan here.

Photo from Ethel and Maud's Facebook page