The aging of society is an enormously important demographic change that has implications for every aspect of life in the United States. The challenge for decision-makers planning the future of our communities is to ensure that the built environment meets the changing needs of all citizens including older people.
Earlier this year, Department of Community and Regional Planning graduate and undergraduate students completed a comprehensive report entitled “Aging With Our Communities — An Aging in Place Plan for Montgomery County,” created for the Montgomery County Office of Aging and Adult Services. The highly detailed 167-page report explores every facet of helping older residents live in their homes for as long as possible, from housing, transportation and emergency management to community engagement, healthcare and food services.
This attention to essential details when determining what is required to ensure aging in place is possible has not gone unnoticed. The students — who worked as a coordinated team of undergraduates and graduates to complete the study — were honored with the 2013 “Student Project Award” from the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Planning Association during ceremonies held in October.
“I think the award reflects not only the quality of the students’ work but the importance of the topic. Municipal, county and state officials are paying attention to this study — the concept of aging in place will impact planning for decades to come,” said Community and Regional Planning Instructor Jeffrey Doshna who guided the students through the planning studio in partnership with Professor Jeffrey Featherstone, who is also director of Temple’s Center for Sustainable Communities. “There are only a handful of accredited planning programs in the region. Our students are doing professional-level, impactful, relevant work and our graduates are going into the field with the skills that professionals are looking for.”
The “Aging With Our Communities” project was the culmination of the department’s year-long focus on planning for aging communities, according to Community and Regional Planning Chair Dr. Deborah Howe.
“Their ‘client,’ Montgomery County Aging and Adult Services, recently completed a four-year plan where ‘aging in place’ was identified as a primary goal. This report was intended to provide this area agency on aging the tools needed to achieve this goal within the areas of housing, transportation, services and safety and security,” said Howe, a nationally recognized expert on planning for aging communities. “Our low density suburban and rural environments have limited housing, transportation and mobility options to meet the needs of their citizens as their abilities change due to aging. In many cases, that is creating unnecessary stress that is affecting quality of life for these individuals and their caregivers.”
Dosha said having undergraduates and graduates — 27 students in all — working in tandem toward the same goal provided unique opportunities to go even further in depth on the topic.
“Students were able to specialize in areas that they are particularly interested in and showcase what they’ve learned in ways that they may not have been able to do otherwise. For example, five graduate students were able to focus entirely on transportation,” he said. “Students were able to take leadership roles and produce meaningful research in areas ranging from safety and security to housing to GIS mapping.”
Study suggestions ranged from the everyday practicality of making street signs more legible from a distance and designing homes where decreased mobility is taken into account — no stairs — to complex topics such as the varied emergency management and disaster response plans used across Montgomery County’s 66 communities.
“Our main goal was to assist the local agency on aging in effectively serving the senior population in Montgomery County,” said Community and Regional Planning Master’s program graduate Jordan Fleisher. “Having a real world client in graduate school is so valuable because it enables you to start networking with other professionals in the field while also gaining experience on a relevant project.”
Aging in place, Fleisher said, is an important topic “because at one point or another it affects everyone.”
“Infrastructure, programs, and policies that benefit older adults, tend to benefit everyone, such as food access, transportation options, diverse housing stock and public safety,” she said. “Some of our key recommendations included educating seniors about the local transportation options, implementing additional senior centers and retrofitting housing to better accommodate senior needs. We recommended both short term and long term goals in each section to help in understanding the scope of various projects.”
Fellow Community and Regional Planning Master’s program graduate Lindsey Graham said the project “was a terrific experience as it allowed me to really step out my comfort zone and explore planning from different perspectives.”
“The Center for Disease Control defines aging in place as the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently and comfortably regardless of age, income or ability level,” she said. “This was a project that I feel could be taken and used to make a significantly positive impact on our communities.”
And it already is making an impact, said Doshna.
“This is the type of project that you want to see your students involved with — practical, hands-on research with a service component. It’s material that our students have presented to county and state officials; it’s on the radar of the Secretary of Aging for Pennsylvania (Brian M. Duke),” he said. “I think the (Montgomery County) Office of Aging and Adult Services has recognized the practicality and the real world applications that the students developed during this project. They’re paying attention to it — they’ve taken this material and run with it.”
Howe said it is important to get planners and decision-makers to use aging “as a lens through which we can evaluate our communities and the extent to which we support or hinder continuing independence.”
“We need to identify ways to put people in planning — we need to do more than building just single family houses and highways,” she said. “This isn’t just an issue for older adults. This is about planning to meet the needs of people throughout their lives.”