Laura Poskin grew up visiting her grandparents in the town of Ebensburg, about an hour outside of Pittsburgh. One of the few Jewish families in the town, they made themselves a fixture of the community, opening a clothing store, sponsoring a Little League team and hosting interfaith dialogue discussions.
But, as they aged, Poskin watched it become harder for them to leave home and be active in the community. Her grandfather wasn’t even able to get his favorite omelet from a local breakfast spot because it was just too difficult to get there.
“It’s a shame for him because it was a community he loved and suddenly he couldn’t leave his house without relying on other people,” she said. “And a shame for the Ebensburg community that they couldn’t tap into this resource.”
In Pittsburgh, where Poskin works with the Southwestern Pennsylvania Partnership for Aging and is the director of Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh, older adults often have the same storyline, struggling to make their way around the city, connect with other members of the community or find the resources they need so they can comfortably age in place.
Building on years of work to make the city more inclusive for older adults,
Pittsburgh and Allegheny County launched the Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh Action Plan in October, an outline of areas for improvement guided by two years of collecting resident feedback. Just over six months in, the project has made strides in improving the walkability of the city and increasing opportunities for older adults to get involved in the arts community, but officials are still addressing issues such as housing, transportation and intergenerational connections.
“Right now, we live pretty siloed from one another as far as age goes. … You grow up with this cohort of people and unless you’re intentional about it, you don’t really move outside your age comfort zone,” Poskin said. “The whole point is to make our community more inclusive and respectful of all ages.”
In Pittsburgh, about 28 percent of Jewish adults are 65 years or older, according to the 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, released in February. Of that population, several respondents reported that more services were needed for seniors.
In September 2015, Pittsburgh and Allegheny County joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities, a network of cities dedicated to making their cities more accessible and inclusive for older adults. The AARP network is part of the World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly Cities and Communities Program.
Pittsburgh is the only city in Pennsylvania that has launched an action plan, according to Poskin.
The plan has three main tenets: access, including issues such as housing and transportation; connection, focusing on the social environment for older adults; and innovation.
Since its launch, Poskin said they have focused on improving crosswalks for older residents, such as lengthening stoplights, giving pedestrians a head start before cars get a green light, and changing intersections to not allow any right turns on red. They have also worked with the city government to encourage “inclusive design” when planning new construction projects. For example, Poskin said, buildings should not have a lip or raised step outside of an entrance.
Despite the improvements in walkability, Jordan Golin, president and CEO of Jewish Family and Community Services, said transportation remains an issue for many residents.
“Pittsburgh has a lot of activities that are really for all generations, all kinds of things happening that seniors should be able to take advantage of, but transportation is often a problem,” he said.
About 38 percent of the Jewish population of adults aged 65 or older live in the suburbs, according to the Jewish Community Study.
“We found that seniors, even though they are able to ride public transportation for free, often can’t make it to the bus stop, and many seniors have limited income. So as a result, they end up isolated in their homes,” Golin said.
That social isolation can lead to increased depression and a decrease in overall health, said Amy Dukes, the director of Memory Care Operations at the JAA and a member of the initial Age-Friendly committee.
To combat that social isolation, the Age-Friendly Action Plan focuses not just on transportation but also on fostering connections among older adults and between older adults and the rest of the community.
“We really think a multigenerational approach is how we’re going to make a difference,” Dukes said, adding that faith-based organizations are in a position to help older adults connect with other members of the community because they reach a large cross-section of the community and can easily create programming within congregations.
In Pittsburgh, 36 percent of adults over 65 said they were involved in the Jewish community and 33 percent said they were connected, according to the Jewish Community Study.
The Jewish community is uniquely situated to encourage intergenerational programming, Poskin said, because of the sense of “wanting to connect what’s in different generations and pass down traditions. It’s a common thread that I think the people in the Jewish community really understand and resonates with them.”
The Action Plan has another year and a half of implementation, during which agencies will continue to address the 30 action items identified in the plan. From there, they will evaluate their work through a partnership with the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health before starting the cycle all over again.
“The more our community talks about how our seniors are living and the supports that are needed, the more likely it is that new initiatives will develop,” Golin said, adding that the results of the community study reinforced the importance of making sure older adults were able to participate in the community.
“That’s the whole hope behind the Age-Friendly plan,” he said. “It’s a lens to help focus the community’s efforts, to help strengthen the community’s efforts. I think it’s our obligation to rise to that challenge.” PJC
Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.