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Conference Considers Plight of City Seniors

April 19, 2007 By:
Ryan Teitman
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Allen Glicksman with photo of the late M. Powell Lawton on the screen.
Experts seem to be recognizing that the neighborhoods where people live play an increasingly important role in their health and well-being. When it comes to seniors, these factors multiply in relevance.

In Philadelphia, for example, the problem is two-fold. Citizens are aging rapidly: Over the next 15 years, the percentage of urban residents over the age of 60 will increase from 17 percent to 19 percent. At the same time, the neighborhoods in which many of them reside are aging themselves, their infrastructures crumbling, which only compounds the issue.

To delve into the subject in depth, the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging recently hosted "Urban Aging: Making Philadelphia's Neighborhoods Senior-Friendly," which also honored behavioral psychologist and aging authority M. Powell Lawton.

The conference, which was held at the Loews Hotel in downtown Philadelphia, brought together experts in community development, health care and city planning to share their knowledge on issues relating to the many facets of growing old, and to show how neighborhoods can play a key role in the health and longevity of elders.

While neighborhoods age, they can become less hospitable. Many do not have grocery stores within walking distance. They have battered sidewalks and traffic lights that change too quickly. And while communities deteriorate, so do the personal relationships among locals.

The experts at the conference agreed on one point: To improve the quality of life of older Philadelphians, neighborhoods and the social networks they provide for seniors need to be bolstered.

In the Rhawnhurst section of Northeast Philadelphia, a naturally occurring retirement community, or N.O.R.C., has become an important rallying point for providing both services and socialization for older residents in the Northeast. Elaine Griffin, the project's coordinator, shared the successes of the program during one of the conference's numerous panels.

Partnering with United Way of Southeast Pennsylvania, Catholic Human Services and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the Rhawnhurst N.O.R.C. has been "a response to a gap in service," said Griffin.

Outreach workers and volunteers offer a plethora of services, from home maintenance to snow shoveling, as well as referrals to other organizations.

"We know seniors want to stay in their homes as they get older," said Griffin. While many own their homes, they often have trouble keeping them up.

Home maintenance is, in fact, the biggest gap in service, she noted: "If you're 85, you can't change your porch light bulb."

Many elderly women were in traditional marriages, she continued, where the husband took care of household chores. When spouses passed away, the task of upkeep fell to them.

The Rhawnhurst N.O.R.C. has so far performed 1,388 services for approximately 360 households.

"We want to be an immediate resource for seniors," said Griffin. "The immediacy makes a difference."

Because outreach workers and volunteers communicate with clients, they get direct input from seniors. This involvement offers the potential for future interaction. The Jewish Educational and Vocational Service and Orleans Technical Institute have provided volunteers who are especially helpful for their specific skills.

The impact of such interactions on the quality of a community is now being investigated by researchers, as was apparent from several of the presentations at the recent gathering.

The environment "can be a source of support and strength, or a source of isolation and distress, depending on the neighborhood," attested Allen Glicksman, director of research and evaluation at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.

Previous research into aging has taken individuals and conditions, such as health matters, as the mainstays of any inquiry. Environmental conditions have generally been disregarded.

Researchers are also working to figure out exactly how the relationship between neighbors in any setting adds to the well-being of all. "The level of trust that an elder has in neighbors has a direct relation to the health of that elder," noted Glicksman.

For all of these ideas to work -- and work well into the future -- planning is crucial, according to several presenters. Non-senior-friendly neighborhoods can arise because city planners do not consider the matter of aging in place.

Planning "is a very complex process," noted Deborah Howe, a professor and chair of the Department of Community and Regional Planning at Temple University. "The problem is that the built environment doesn't always work that well. We should be planning communities in a way that, if you moved in, you could live there your entire life."


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