Tim Vandermel and his son, Will, volunteer for the 10th Annual Fall Clean-up in The Village of Shorewood. Photo by Kat Schleicher.

By David Lewellen

Every year on a Saturday in late fall, about 150 volunteers fan out in the Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood on a mission to clean up the yards of older residents. Volunteers from churches, Scout troops and school groups rake leaves, put away patio furniture and do whatever else is needed to help 35 households get ready for winter.

“We try to meet and connect with as many of the people as we can,” said Emma Boehm, a Shorewood High School senior who has done the cleanup for six years. “There’s one lady who’s always super excited to see us and tells us stories about when she was our age and shows us pictures.”

And that’s the point. “It’s not about leaves,” said Sue Kelley, the facilitator of Shorewood Connects, which started the project about a decade ago. “It’s about connections and relationships.”

Those kinds of connections are one key to a good place to grow old in, and one reason why Shorewood has joined more than 190 other localities in the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities. It was the first in Wisconsin to do so. The state’s other early adopters in 2017 were Greendale, another Milwaukee suburb, and Sheboygan, a city of about 50,000 on Lake Michigan.

AARP Wisconsin hopes at least three more cities will join the network in 2018, and more in subsequent years.

“Communities are looking at demographic changes, and they realize they’re going to have to address those needs,” said AARP Wisconsin state director Sam Wilson.

An age-friendly community is “a place where you’re still a valuable asset in that community, where residents feel safe and secure, with affordable housing and transportation, and services that allow people to age in place,” he said.

Grassroots input important
Obvious items on the network’s checklist include public transportation, pedestrian safety and access to health care, but it goes deeper. Civic participation and employment, for instance, measure whether businesses in the community are willing to hire older workers.

“It’s an opportunity, if you can see older adults as a critical workforce,” Wilson said.

A community that is conscious of including older adults will also be looking out for residents of any age. For example, curb cuts for walkers or wheelchairs also help parents pushing strollers.

“The whole point is to be as inclusive as possible,” Wilson said.

“It’s not just for our current generation of older people, but for everyone,” said Theresa Bellone, facilitator of the group that pushed for the age-friendly designation in Greendale. Looking at the list of age-friendly localities and wondering how to get started, her group decided to work on communications and produced a guide to senior services specific to their village.

Bellone has also talked to similar-sized communities in Vermont and Michigan to learn from their experiences. “AARP had a blueprint we could follow,” she said. “Now we have to take the next step and put together a community improvement plan.”

Although endorsement from local elected officials is necessary, the real push for designation usually comes from a volunteer group. Communities assess strengths and weaknesses in housing, transportation, caregiving and social engagement.

“You start with low-hanging fruit, something that people are already interested in, and then people start to see what age-friendly looks like,” Kelley said. “For us, that was the yard cleanup. People are eager to help and be part of something larger.” Shorewood Connects is gathering feedback from residents about livability and will consider developing a new action plan, she said.

“It’s not just a sign at the city limits,” Wilson said. “That’s not what age-friendly is about. It’s a process to ensure that a community is great for all ages and doesn’t stop.

David Lewellen is a writer living in Glendale, Wisc.