Paul H. Irving
Aging and Capital Markets and Health and Impact Investing and Philanthropy and Public Policy
Paul Irving is chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging and distinguished scholar in residence at the University of Southern California Davis School of Gerontology. Irving also serves as chairman of, a director of East West Bancorp, Inc.
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Change begins at home (and an aging population can’t wait)

By: Paul H. Irving
November 18, 2014

In the wake of another election demonstrating the deep divisions in America, we have reason to be skeptical about near-term prospects for political rapprochement and policy compromise. But beyond the gridlock, there’s good news. For some large-scale opportunities that just can’t wait, the best approaches may be found outside the Beltway. 

Designing a better future for America’s aging population is one such opportunity. By 2030, one in five Americans will be over 65, most of them living in urban communities. Enabling successful aging for the largest-ever population of older adults is a central issue for the United States, as it is for countries around the world. The time is now, the stakes are high, and cities are on the front lines.

Change does begin at home. America’s cities are engines of ideas and innovation. Across the country, urban leaders from regions red and blue are working constructively toward a better future. They know that a healthy, productive, engaged, and purposeful older population can improve lives across the age spectrum and ensure a brighter future for their cities.

Improving aging lives through strengthened cities requires urban environments that are physically, economically, and socially attuned to mature residents. Age-friendly cities optimize health, security, engagement, and productivity. They offer housing options, social services, and opportunities for education, work, volunteerism, and social interaction. These goals hold vast opportunity for America’s cities—and require committed mayoral leadership.

Mayors know that older residents can be invaluable assets. Older people today are healthier and more vibrant than in generations past. They have much to offer—the wisdom of age and the practical experience that can enrich families, as well as work, educational, and social settings. They bring mentoring and training capabilities to the workforce, along with perspectives that enhance intergenerational teams. In extended careers and entrepreneurial ventures, they drive economic growth. In education and volunteer activities, they contribute to well-being. Today’s mayors are helping their communities reimagine aging.

Through cross-agency efforts, age-friendly cities of the future will feature welcoming neighborhoods where streets and shops encourage engagement. Through upgraded infrastructure and communications, cities will enable people to age independently in their homes. By integrating health and social services into overall planning, cities will foster healthy aging. Through transportation and housing options, cities will promote mobility, safety, and convenience, enabling older adults to remain active and involved.

The role of mayors in this great challenge cannot be overstated. Mayors’ ground-level experience with demographic transitions opens the door to solutions that can be replicated at the state, national, and global levels.

Believing that cities and city leaders can change the face of aging, the Milken Institute published its 2014 edition of “Best Cities for Successful Aging”™ today, continuing a series we launched in 2012. The report measures, compares, and ranks U.S. metropolitan areas for their capacity to enable successful aging, with a methodology that makes use of public data on health care, wellness, living arrangements, financial well-being, transportation, employment and educational opportunities, and community engagement.

The Institute has also reached out to U.S. mayors and asked them to take the Best Cities for Successful Aging Mayor’s Pledge. By signing, mayors agree to take such steps as expanding housing, health, and transportation options that suit the aging population’s varied needs, and committing to provide opportunities for older adults to improve their cities through volunteer activity and purposeful encore careers.

The “Best Cities for Successful Aging” report will also highlight local programs enabling older adults to give back, pay forward, and remain involved. These programs with purpose range from intergenerational tutoring to coordinated services and foster grandparenting. Up and running in cities large and small, they are the fruit of innovation and action by elected officials and other policymakers, nonprofit organizations, and businesses—models demonstrating that aging populations present new opportunities to improve the lives of all.

The 2014 election reminds us that we have big challenges to address, from education and public health to job creation, income inequality, and financial security. We need to inform public policy, strengthen civil society, and resolve seemingly irresolvable disputes.

At the same time, the largest group of older adults ever represents a massive human capital resource that can be activated to address these and other challenges. We’re at an inflection point. The needs are urgent, as are the opportunities. Older people are ready to capitalize on their accumulated knowledge, wisdom, and experience to solve problems and realize lives of purpose. Cities are where those possibilities intersect.

Political gridlock may continue; we certainly hope not. But, well beyond the Beltway, there is hope. The dots are connecting, and mayors are leading the way to a new future of aging.