EDITOR'S NOTE: A chance meeting last spring with officials from West Sacramento, California, led to a discussion on how a like-sized city to Mansfield, but in a different part of the country, is trying to improve the quality of life for its aging population. Today's installment is the third in a three-part series on that question as part of our Gray Matters project. Part I was published on Dec. 12. Part II was published on Dec. 13.
If West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon could give one piece of advice for cities embarking on an initiative to become more age-friendly, it would be to think backwards.
“Start with thinking about how it’s all going to be implemented,” he said.
It’s easy to conduct a survey, create an action plan and then assign a few people to implement the plan, he said.
“But that almost never produces real change, and especially not the kind of transformative change that we’re seeing with things like this microtransit pilot, or what we hope to do with the volunteer piece,” Cabaldon said.
For West Sacramento, what made the age-friendliness plan actionable was recognizing the real reason age-friendly issues were not at the forefront before. Instead, they were relegated to a single commission that had little power.
The antidote to the plan that just sits on a shelf gathering dust is having a plan that emphasizes action.
Another secret weapon for West Sacramento’s age-friendly action plan was AARP.
The city partnered with AARP early in the process, adopting the organization’s existing age-friendly framework and obtaining ideas, volunteer support and even funding from the organization.
Deputy Mayor Jon Robinson, who heads the city’s age-friendly efforts, describes AARP’s framework as structured enough to provide a helpful path forward, but flexible enough to be integrated with things the city is already doing. The city created the plan simultaneously with its state-mandated comprehensive general plan. Those plans overlapped significantly.
Cities who apply for and are accepted into AARP’s Network of Age-Friendly Communities commit to producing a plan within two years -- and then implementing the plan over the next three years. After the initial five-year commitment, cities must recertify and continually adjust their plan if they wish to stay in the network.
In West Sacramento’s case, AARP provided a grant to help fund a statistically valid, mailed survey of all city residents over the age of 45. The city held focus groups at a senior residence and in an underserved neighborhood. Focus group participants filled out the survey. The survey was also distributed with Meals on Wheels, at public meetings, in utility bills and online.
Another AARP grant allowed the city to offer free rides for seniors learning to use the new rideshare service. Coupled with community training sessions, the promo codes helped older adults adopt a potentially daunting new service.
AARP also connected West Sacramento with experts in a number of areas and even provided volunteers to assist the city in registering seniors to try the rideshare program.
Among AARP’s most valuable gifts to West Sacramento was its help in shifting the mindset of public policy makers and community partners.
All too often, Cabaldon said, society defines seniors by a set of deficits. With this deficit-oriented mindset, services for seniors can feel limiting and depressing rather than engaging and uplifting.
“We found we got a lot more engagement with seniors when we focused on possibilities,” he said. “They don’t want to hear, ‘This is how we’re dealing with your lack of mobility and your health challenges and your dementia.’
"They have the same aspirations and hopes as everyone else.”
The idea is to address seniors’ needs without focusing on negative stereotypes or deficits.
For example, prior to the age-friendly action plan, West Sacramento may have viewed its shift from buses to microtransit as an updated paratransit, or service for individuals with disabilities.
“But what we heard back was folks weren’t going to use that,” Cabaldon said. “They wanted to get in a cool Mercedes Benz and pretend they were going off to a kickboxing class or something. Or maybe they actually wanted to take a kickboxing class.”