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Phil Stafford

March 13, 2013

We’re not getting any younger.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2050, the number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to be 88.5 million, more than double its projected population of 40 million in 2010. Baby boomers are largely responsible for this bulge, meaning “elder-friendly communities” are gaining attention.

Phil Stafford has been paying attention to such communities for a long time. The director of the Center on Aging and Community at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community at IU Bloomington, Stafford is one the nation’s leading experts on the development of elder-friendly communities.

Elder friendly communities are exactly what they sound like, communities that support older adults with infrastructure and services—such as accessible public transportation; affordable and appropriate housing; and safe outdoor spaces–to accommodate the changing needs that aging can bring. Stafford’s expertise in the creation of such age-friendly communities has earned him widespread recognition, including his current role as an advisor to the national PBS documentary project, Coming of Age in an Aging America. The project, which also includes an interactive website and a “public engagement campaign,” is aimed at highlighting the many issues related to work, community, and relationships in an aging society. The documentary is scheduled to appear by the end of 2013.

In Indiana, Stafford and the Center on Aging and Community are deeply involved with the Indiana Communities for a Lifetime initiative. In 2013, the Communities for a Lifetime Initiative joined a $1.3 million national initiative called Community AGEnda: Improving America for All Ages. Supported by Pfizer Foundation and Grantmakers in Aging, a national association of funders, the national Community AGEnda effort is helping nonprofits in five U.S. regions accelerate local efforts to make towns and cities age-friendly.

In February, the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority designated the Indiana cities of Huntington, Linton, and Valparaiso as Communities for a Lifetime. Stafford also received an award of recognition from the IHCDA honoring his dedication and efforts in encouraging cities and towns to “welcome, value, and support the meaningful participation of people of all abilities across the entire lifespan.”

In Stafford’s view, the transformation of communities is the key to aging well in America, or anywhere else. In his book Elderburbia: Aging with a Sense of Place in America, he writes:

Aging is not about time and the body, but about place, and relationships. Aging, illness, and disability are not in the body but in the relationship between the body and its environment. Aging is, so to speak, an out-of-body experience. … [W]e face aging within communities, and so this is the challenge…how can our communities prepare for the aging of our society? As a community project, and not simply an individual one, we need to find ways to work together to create good places to grow old.

In a recent post to his blog, Phil’s Adventures in Elderburbia, Stafford muses further about the role of relationships in making age-friendly communities work:

A community that attracted young professionals without grounding them in relationships with elders (anybody with local experience) would be falling short. … When I think of the benefits of age and of staying put, I would point to the “bridging capital” represented by the network of relationships accumulated by people with experience. Young people hanging out together build a strong base of “bonding capital” – the camaraderie that derives from being part of the gang. But, as important and satisfying that may be, the gang needs bridging capital – it needs connections to other resources and influences outside of the group. Often, these connections can be made through those people who know everybody and whom everybody knows – a community’s elders.

During March 2013, Stafford is chairing extended sessions on age-friendly communities at the American Society on Aging meetings, and also in August, at the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences in Manchester, England.

For more on Stafford’s work at the Center on Aging and Community, visit their site.