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How can we make Rochester an 'Age-Friendly Community'?

How can we make Rochester an 'Age-Friendly Community'?

Community members with In the City for Good, a grassroots group working to address the challenges of growth in Rochester, have teamed-up with AARP Minnesota to explore how Rochester can become more age-friendly. They have started uncovering issues that align the young and aging alike. 

“What we know is that millennials and baby boomers have a lot in common in terms of what they want in their communities,” says Jay Haapala, Associate State Director for Outreach with AARP Minnesota. “They want affordable housing, transportation options and they want to be involved. People with walkers and strollers use the same sidewalks.”

It’s with that mindset that AARP Minnesota and In the City for Good — with support from Family Service Rochester and 125 Live — are working to get Rochester accepted into the AARP’s network of Age-Friendly Communities.

The distinction is more than an additional symbolic title for the city. If accepted into the AARP network, Rochester will have access to global resources and information on age-friendly best practices, models of assessment and implementation. The initiative is aligned with the World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly Cities and Communities Program, which has participating communities in more than 20 nations.

AARP explains that “membership means that a jurisdiction’s elected leadership has made a commitment to actively working toward being a great place for people of all ages.” Membership is not an endorsement or a designation. Participation in the network “requires a multi-step process of improvement, including the creation and implementation of an action plan.”

Related: Want to learn how livable Olmsted County is compared to other communities in our region or elsewhere in the country? Visit the AARP Livability Index.

The first step in this process, an Age-Friendly Survey, has been live for months now. It seeks input on issues like transportation, housing, social inclusion, and civic participation and wraps up on December 31.  

In addition to the survey, Dave Beal, who has been facilitating In the City for Good’s Age-Friendly Action Group, says they are working with Olmsted County staff and commissioners to submit an application to the Network of Age-Friendly Communities early in 2019.

As exciting as the big-picture implications of this project are, we wanted to know how local individuals might benefit from this initiative, so we connected with seniors around Rochester on a number of key issues.

Independence and services

“Over 90 percent of our members, and we would extrapolate that to include anyone over the age of 50 in the United States, say that they want to stay in their same community as they get older — they want to stay in their same home, in their same neighborhood,” says Haapala.

The trouble is, our healthcare, housing, and transportation systems are not designed for a generation like this.

Evelyn Meki, 84, lives alone in a house in SE Rochester. She’s been independent her whole life.

“I never met anybody that I wanted to look at across the breakfast table every day of my life for the rest of my life,” she says.

She’s refusing to let the aging process whittle away at that independence. Even after stays at two of the local nursing homes after medical procedures, she’s keen to remain in the house she’s been in for years, where she’s just minutes away from medical care.

“I know it looks messy. But, this is my stuff. And I just feel very comfortable here,” said Meki. “My sister would say to me, ‘You don’t like people’ I said, ‘it’s not that I don’t like them, but I don’t want them around all the time!’”

With no family around, community support is a crucial to Meki remaining in her home. Volunteers with the Neighbors Helping Neighbors program at Family Service Rochester cut her grass and shovel her sidewalk in the winter. She’s also signed up with FSR for Meals on Wheels and assistance getting groceries.

“I’m just taking it day by day. And I really feel good other than it’s very hard for me to get around because I don’t have any toes on this foot at all. And that means my balance is nothing,” says Meki.

Meki is able to keep her independence thanks to the bevy of services she’s been connected to. Often, though, information about these services is limited, or not well-publicized. Several communities in the Age-Friendly Network are working to solve similar problems.

Our neighbors in Northfield, MN, found that many people were unaware of services that are already available like home health care and transportation assistance. The committee there is developing an online resource hub to help community members be better-informed. In Westchester County, NY, the team created a Caregiver Coaching program which pairs experienced volunteers with people in need of advice and support.


Public transportation means a lot to David and Ellen Walle, 69 and 64, respectively. Both are legally blind and do not work due to disability. They moved here in 2009 and purchased half of a duplex.

“We don’t, either one of us, have a car. Neither one of us do. So we rely on all public transportation and friends and everything that we can get our hands on,” says Ellen.

When the bus system began operating full days on weekends, it was a massive improvement for them. Other areas are beginning to sag from stress, though. Zip Shuttle, which transports people to various errands, is currently in a pinch for more drivers, seats Ellen. The trouble is, even those people who are hired wind up being stuck in line for a CDL driver’s license test, which takes time, leaving people immobilized in the meantime.

To address problems like this, a team in Age-Friendly Community Alexandria, MN, is creating a ride-sharing service to bring people to doctor appointments and other errands.

Other seniors want to move around on bike, like, Mary Teresa Gibbons, 60, who starts every day with a bike ride out of Heritage apartments, off of highway 52 near Pizza Hut North. A quick survey of Google Maps will tell you this is not an ideal place to begin a bike ride. She either hits a frontage road during the day, or, at night, winds up riding out of her way by Assisi Heights, which is steeper, but better lit and far safer.

She’s been biking year-round four years now. It’s faster and more reliable than the bus system, she says, and it also helps her regain her balance after an accident years ago. Not only that — it’s good for her heart and she’s hoping to prevent Alzheimer’s by keeping healthy and alert.

But the city’s drivers do not seem to acknowledge those benefits.

“I hear that all the time, ‘Get off the road,’ even if I’m in the bike lane, I have people that are yelling at me and honking at me to get off the road, because there’s a sidewalk there,” says Gibbons.

Often, though, the sidewalk isn’t even safe. Ellen Walle says that she finds sidewalks frequently un-shoveled, making progress difficult for anyone with a walker or wheelchair.

“Downtown, there are several places where there are talking and vibrating traffic lights. I happen to be a functionally deaf blind person, I use cochlear implants, and so I can’t localize traffic, or tell the direction where it’s coming from or where it’s going. I depend on the vibrating buttons on the lights,” says David.

That technology has been around for years, but, incredibly, is still not in place at some of the city’s busiest intersections. This is the kind of oversight that access to the network of research and established best-practices can help avoid.

“Solutions to the challenges facing these Rochester residents are what we can address through the Network of Age-Friendly Communities,” says Haapala. “Rochester is a great place to live and developing very quickly. People like David, Ellen, Mary Teresa, and Evelyn have a voice in how that happens.”

All Olmsted County residents are encouraged to have a voice and respond to the survey today:

Published in partnership with AARP Minnesota

Cover photo: Rochester skyline / Getty

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