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Minnesota Commits to Age-Friendliness

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Evelyn Burry, 82, of Northfield, helped spearhead efforts to make her city more age-friendly.
Photo by Ackerman + Gruber

Evelyn Burry, 82, of Northfield, looks forward to attending city-sponsored outdoor events now that she knows that a chair will be waiting just for her.

Thanks to the Red Chair Project, special seats are reserved for older adults and those with disabilities.

The project was funded by a 2019 AARP Community Challenge grant awarded to Age-friendly Northfield and FiftyNorth, which provides 50 portable red chairs with arms for area events.

Without the reserved seating, Burry said, she would need to carry a chair “over uneven ground, where I could lose my balance and fall.”

A reserved seat is just the sort of benefit that makes a place welcoming to older adults.

In 2016, Northfield joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. Now the entire state is poised to enter the network, after Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed an executive order creating the Governor’s Council on an Age-Friendly Minnesota, in December 2019.

“Our communities are much more vibrant and effective when they are age-inclusive,” Walz said, adding that such outreach could attract more people to live in the state.

The coming age wave

This year the number of Minnesotans older than 65 will surpass the number of those younger than 18.

“These shifting demographics will result in both challenges and opportunities,” said Will Phillips, AARP Minnesota state director.

“All of this is going to require state agencies to work together and think about how Minnesota can create the conditions for communities to do even more,” he observed.

Allowing people to age in their communities provides benefits to everybody.

“Older adults are significant contributors when it comes to civic engagement, volunteerism and even spending,” Phillips said. “But there will also be challenges in the areas of access to transportation and affordable housing, as well as key health and long-term care services.”

Neighborhood improvements translate across generational divides. If it’s a great place for older people to live, then it’s great for people of all ages, Phillips noted. “If we’re building a community for someone 80 years old who uses a wheelchair, we’re also creating the right community for a mom with a stroller, or a younger person with a physical disability.”

In Northfield, Burry feels secure knowing that city officials consider the implications for older people anytime they discuss potential projects.

They also listen, something that was evident, Burry said, when they had a parking space for people with handicaps moved from a hilly street to a level one at the request of an Age-friendly Northfield Steering Committee member whose husband uses a wheelchair.

The governor’s council is meeting and collecting feedback as it creates an action plan and will make legislative recommendations by Aug. 15.

AARP Minnesota is conducting a survey to gather ideas about what is needed to make the state more age-friendly and its communities better places to live for everyone.

You may participate in the survey here.

Mary Van Beusekom is a writer living in Excelsior.

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