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AARP AARP States Minnesota Health & Wellbeing

Age-Friendly Activities Aim For Healthier, Safer State

Seniors Walking

Colleen Vitek likes to keep moving year-round, whether it’s doing yoga, cross-country skiing or walking outdoors.

But last winter, after she slipped and fell on the ice near her Northfield home, some of her walks moved indoors — to the hallways of Northfield High School. Vitek and her friends walk the perimeter of the one-story building — three laps for a mile — and soak up the sounds and sights of high school life: musical practices, hallway artwork, shop projects visible through a window.

Vitek, 68, always walks with someone else. “So it’s socializing,” she says; the closest indoor mall is about 20 miles away.

The walks are supported by Age-Friendly Northfield, an organization working to improve the city of Northfield, which is part of the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. The efforts are designed to create better places to live for people of all ages by working with public officials, nonprofits and volunteers to improve housing, transportation, parks and other services.

Minnesota was the ninth state to join the network, in 2022, and the number of communities in the state joining has grown from five in 2019 to 22 today.

Northfield, south of the Twin Cities, was one of the earliest in the state to join, in 2016. By that time, the high school’s hallways were open for walkers before and after classes — but few people seemed to know about it. Age-Friendly Northfield publicized the high school space in the local media. It also added a bench, so walkers could change out of messy boots, and a coat rack.

“People were picking up their parents and taking them over to the high school to walk,” says CC Linstroth, vice chair of Age-Friendly Northfield. “People are there with their walkers.”

Improving walkability is also a goal in Rochester, where Dave Beal, Age-Friendly Olmsted County coordinator at Family Service Rochester, led a walk audit in the Slatterly Park neighborhood funded by a $2,500 AARP Community Challenge grant. On a September morning last year, Beal led about 80 volunteers to examine sidewalks and crossings along 12 different routes.

Bruce Teigen, 77, of Rochester, would note when a segment was cracked or broken from tree roots pushing up. He’d then alert Beal. Teigen saw the project as important because he walks two to three miles a day with his wife.

Beal forwarded the audit’s results to the city, which set up a schedule for improvements.

Making a community safer for pedestrians is important — particularly as people age. People generally believe they’ll drive their entire lives, but the average person stops driving about six years before they die, says Robert Applebaum, director of the Ohio Long-Term Care Research Project at Miami University in Ohio. Creating age-friendly communities will benefit people of all ages, Applebaum notes — from parents pushing strollers to kids on bikes.

There are many ways to boost livability, says Jay Haapala, who oversees community engagement for AARP Minnesota. That includes a greater variety of affordable housing and expanded high-speed internet access, which could fuel more social connections.

Beyond specific projects, what’s needed is a shift in thinking about aging, says Rajean Moone, associate director of policy for the Center for Healthy Aging and Innovation at the University of Minnesota. His institution was the first in the state to enroll in the Age-Friendly University Global Network, and twice a year it offers a virtual orientation for lifelong learners, hosts an age-friendly day on campus and offers a tool kit for auditing classes.

“The real world is not age segregated,” Moone says. “We should be embracing the life span.”

Cristina Rouvalis, a writer based in Pennsylvania, has written for the Bulletin for more than a decade.

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