After years of hard work and coordinated effort, Miami has succeeded in recasting its image from a crime-ridden land of vice to a glamorous, tropical hotspot, home to beautiful — mostly young — people.
Despite this image makeover, however, it isn’t the whole story. Miami-Dade County has the largest number of older adult residents in Florida (over a half million are age 60+), and that number is expected to double in the next 25 years.
Of course, not everyone’s aging experience is the same. Some of us will be active, healthy and independent well into our 90s, while others will struggle with disability and chronic illness and need help from family caregivers.
The demographics of the local elder population (67 percent are Hispanic and 16 percent are black) mean they are more likely to experience chronic diseases like diabetes and cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s. And we know that one in five (20 percent) of our local elders have monthly incomes below the federal poverty line, which complicates everything. Because this generation will likely live much longer than the last, these elders will be an important part of our community for decades to come.
Why should this concern us? Because like many cities in the United States, Miami-Dade County flourished at a time when automobiles gave us the freedom to travel longer distances on new highways. Most of our development focused on building sprawling suburban communities that catered to young families, who wanted to live in single-family homes with big yards and to shop in strip malls with plenty of parking.
We see this pattern all over Miami-Dade, from Kendall to Miami Gardens, from Doral to Cutler Bay.
The problem is that our needs and preferences change as we grow older, and our community just isn’t designed to take that into consideration. Miami-Dade is an expensive place to live, with an extremely limited supply of affordable housing for renters, and even fewer units with age-friendly features like no-step entry and grab bars.
Elders who own their own homes often find it difficult to keep up with ever-increasing expenses like taxes and insurance and repairs on a fixed income.
Older adults, particularly those over age 70, are less likely to drive and more likely to need alternative forms of transportation like public transit. Many of us may eventually need special transportation for people with disabilities. Our beloved suburban communities also present many hidden challenges to older adults, from great distances between amenities, to a lack of sidewalks, benches and shaded bus stops, to one of the highest pedestrian fatality rates in the nation.
Overall, Miami-Dade County scored only a 48 out of 100 on AARP’s newly released “Livability Index,” a tool that measures and compares the quality of life for older adults in cities across the nation.
The bad news is that we have work to do; the good news is that we have a way to do that.
The Miami Dade Age-Friendly Initiative is a collaboration between community partners such as the Health Foundation of South Florida, AARP Florida, United Way of Miami-Dade, Miami-Dade County, Urban Health Partnerships and the Alliance for Aging. We are working together to identify and implement specific actions and strategies that can make our community more welcoming and accessible to older adults.
Our efforts over the past two years have addressed issues such as how to make parks and outdoor spaces more age-friendly (by including more benches, improving lighting and adding programs of interest); how to make communities more age friendly (by improving pedestrian safety and encouraging age-friendly business practices); and how to support public policies that enhance the community for elders (via transportation, zoning, and development plans and ordinances).
These improvements enhance the community not only for older adults, but for residents of all ages.
In the coming months, the Age Friendly Miami-Dade partners will continue their work to create an Age- Friendly Action Plan that will give the community and its leaders specific steps that local policymakers, municipalities, and organizations can take.
We invite everyone reading this to get involved, not only because this will soon be an urgent issue for the aging population of our community, but also because making our communities better for older adults makes them better for everyone.
Max B. Rothman is president and CEO of the Alliance for Aging, Inc.