Senior Decisions: Age-Friendly Columbus Urges Businesses to Cater to Seniors

Steve Wartenberg
Karen Peters

It's a familiar German Village scene: Karen Peters cruising down the sidewalks and brick-filled streets on her motorized mobility cart. “I like to go out a lot, but not in the winter, not when it's so cold and there's snow,” she says.

The longtime German Village resident suffers from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a form of muscular dystrophy, but she's active and independent. “Columbus is pretty accessible for me, although sometimes there aren't curb cutouts, and I have to go out in the street,” says Peters, who identifies the Columbus Museum of Art, the Pizzuti Collection and the festivals along the Scioto Mile as some of her favorite destinations. “The hardest thing for me can be the restrooms. That's the biggest challenge.”

Peters, 75, is a member of a fast-growing demographic: aging Americans. About 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day and, as you'd expect, many of them live in central Ohio.

“Knowing these changing demographics, the growing number of seniors, it's very important for progressive, modern cities to look at all our proposals and programs with an eye on this,” says Michael Stinziano, a member of Columbus City Council. “And this initiative sets the foundation for that and will make our city truly age-friendly for all our residents,” he says.

The initiative is Age-Friendly Columbus, and its plan and recommendations—put together under the initial leadership of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission with input from about 1,000 local seniors—were unveiled at a press conference at the Gateway Film Center on Nov. 28. The goal is to keep seniors in their homes and to help them stay active, safe, working (if they want to), connected and a vibrant part of the community.

The Gateway is the initiative's first age-friendly business. The film center has an elevator and escalator and recently began a monthly, age-friendly screening in which the lights are turned up and the sound is turned down. Phantom Thread was the January feature. The screenings are $5, include popcorn and parking and are paired with community events in the film center's Torpedo Room restaurant.

“We wanted to create a way for seniors to enjoy screenings together in a welcoming environment,” says Alexander Davis, the film center's director of development. “The fastest growing audience for independent films is the 50-plus age group.”

In other words: Being senior friendly is smart business.

Raising Awareness

Age-Friendly Columbus estimates the number of local seniors will double in the next 35 years. There were approximately 115,000 people aged 65 or older in Franklin County, according to the 2010 U.S. Census (the most recent in which complete data was tabulated).

“I want to stay in my home as long as I can; I want to stay active,” says Peters, a widow. She's a volunteer at the German Village Historical Society and was one of the seniors who took part in the Age-Friendly Columbus survey.

“We're raising awareness so older people can participate more,” she says. “Young people don't think about getting old, and they don't think about when we're invited somewhere if you can get in the door and if the restrooms are accessible.”

Housing, transportation and staying connected and active were common concerns among the seniors who participated in the Age-Friendly Columbus survey. Katie White, the leader of Age-Friendly Columbus, says the group is focusing on eight “domains of livability”— outdoor space and buildings; transportation; housing; safety and emergency preparedness; social participation, respect and inclusion; employment and civic participation; communication and information; community support and health services.

White has led Age-Friendly Columbus from the start in 2016. At the time, she was executive director of Village Connections, a nonprofit that helps Downtown residents—especially seniors—“stay connected, active, and independent.”

The age-friendly concept dates to 2007 “and was started by the World Health Organization with 10 pilot cities,” explains White, who left Village Connections to serve as the Age-Friendly Columbus project coordinator at MORPC. The project is now led by Ohio State University's College of Social Work, where Peters is the Age-Friendly Columbus Director.

The AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities coordinates the World Health Organization's age-friendly program in this country. Cleveland and Oxford are the only other Ohio cities currently part of the network.

White, Stinziano and Fran Ryan helped get Age-Friendly Columbus off the ground. Ryan, 84, is a former member of Columbus City Council, a former Franklin County commissioner and the first woman to chair the Franklin County Democratic Party. She has a lot of contacts and knows how to get things done.

“I called all my anchors to help us get organized,” Ryan says, adding her list included key people at the Franklin County Office on Aging and Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging. “Mayor Coleman signed off on it, and Mayor Ginther kept it going.”

The survey of seniors revealed that 90 percent would like to remain in their current homes and the majority (71 percent) rated the city as a good or excellent place to live. However, the report stated that “favorable impressions of Columbus increase slightly as income and age increases.” About 20 percent of seniors earning $25,000 or less a year says their neighborhood is a poor or very poor place to live.

Financial freedom is important for seniors, and those without sufficient nest eggs seem destined for more problems. Because of this, White says providing “equity in the availability of services is important.”

Taking Action

The Age-Friendly Columbus program has moved from the planning stage to the action phase, which will run through 2020. Some of the initial goals are to encourage local businesses to become more age-friendly; make city departments, buildings, parks and space more accessible; increase the walkability of sidewalks and streets; and encourage seniors to use multi-modal transportation.

Specific strategies include: increasing crosswalk times at intersections, a free senior circulator bus, helping seniors find roommates, training first responders and contractors on aging issues, partnering seniors with schools for volunteer opportunities and partnering with local colleges to promote lifelong learning.

Funding will be a challenge. “We've seen the success of private-public partnerships here in Columbus,” Stinziano says, adding that this will be the game plan for Age-Friendly Columbus. “We're looking for strategic partners.”

Americans over the age of 50 currently spend about $7.1 trillion annually, a number that is expected to rise to more than $13.5 trillion by 2032, according to the Longevity Economy, a recent report by Oxford Economics. The report called seniors a “fast-growing contingent of active, productive people who are working longer and taking the economy in new directions.”

Being an age-friendly business isn't that difficult. “It's easier access, it's spreading the tables further apart [to accommodate walkers and wheelchairs] in a restaurant,” White says. “It could be turning up the lights and turning down the music, specific hours for older adults when you're not as busy. We'll have groups of Ohio State students go out with older adults to review local businesses.”

Peters plans to be part of this roving, review group. She's already an expert on access into the shops, cafes and restaurants of German Village.

“I like Lindy's; I like to sit at the bar and socialize,” she says, adding she can also easily get into the Sycamore and Starbucks.

“And when they were building Pistacia Vera [a pastry shop/café], they had me try out the ramp,” Peters says.

Her verdict? “It's very accessible,” she says. And the croissants are quite tasty.

Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.