How can Los Angeles Age Well?

Like many American cities, Los Angeles is seeing unprecedented growth in its population of seniors.

Right now, about 500,000 residents over the age of 65 call our city home -- and in LA County, women over 65 are our fastest-growing demographic. We’re lucky to have them. Older Angelenos are more likely to volunteer, vote, and engage with the city than younger ones.

But with an aging population comes a unique set of challenges, and it’s unclear whether Los Angeles is ready to face them. In many ways, we’re not a friendly city to our senior neighbors.

  • We’re a car-centric city, and don’t provide good options for seniors who give up driving.
  • About 48% of our older residents aren't fluent in English, making it more difficult for them to navigate city services that are largely unavailable in their first language.
  • Elderly people are much more vulnerable to air pollution and heat waves -- two problems that plague Los Angeles and are poised to get even worse under climate change.
In 2017, the Milken Institute put together a comprehensive study of the best cities for aging in the US. Los Angeles came in 56th among large metros. That’s completely unacceptable.

Luckily, there are so many policies available to us that can make the city healthier and more welcome to the elderly -- and policies that are good for seniors make for a healthier city overall.

We’ve already released a number of policies that, while they’d benefit all Angelenos, would improve the well-being of seniors in particular.
  • The bus and street safety improvements recommended in our Environment platform would make the city easier to navigate for older residents -- and while public transit should be free for all Angelenos, any phase-in process should make it free for older residents and students first.
  • Our focus on language justice at City Hall in our Immigration platform would give seniors who don’t speak English better access to their own government.
  • The rental assistance, right to eviction counsel, rent freezes, and deeply affordable housing construction we advocate for in our Housing and Homelessness platform would all help Angelenos age in place, and prevent them from the devastating loss of their homes.
But there are so many more things we can do to help seniors thrive in Los Angeles. As with all of our platforms, we consulted experts in the field, activists, and the communities most affected -- in this case, seniors themselves. Here are a few of the policies we came up with.

Expanding and re-imagining the senior center

It’s well documented that one of the greatest and most tragic threats facing the elderly is isolation, and that’s especially true in Los Angeles, where 26% of senior women and 17% of senior men live alone. Spending too much time apart from family, friends and neighbors can lead to a litany of health problems -- including cognitive decline, depression, and heart disease.

Unfortunately, the sprawl of LA sometimes makes it difficult to bring people together. Seniors who live in a home far from community life are at major risk of falling victim to the dangers of isolation. That’s why it’s incumbent on our city to make a special effort to help seniors socialize, and why we need a neighborhood-focused approach.

Senior centers are an effective way to bring older people together and help them stay active. But Los Angeles is sadly lacking in the number of these facilities available. Across the entire city, the Department of Aging operates only 16 Multi-Purpose Centers for seniors, in addition to 26 additional centers operated by the Parks Department that don’t provide services like meals or wellness checks. For comparison, New York’s Department for the Aging operates about 250 senior centers -- for a much more geographically-contained population.

Many of our Senior Centers are also built in ways that further isolate the people who use them. I’ve spent a lot of time at the senior center in my neighborhood, the Griffith Park Adult Community Center. It’s not far from a swimming pool, tennis courts, and playgrounds which attract children of all ages along with their families. Yet while the other three facilities are all clustered together, the Adult Community Center is separated from them. What an opportunity for inter-generational mixing lost! Other facilities in the city are set up the same way -- gathering seniors together, but separating them from everyone else.

We need to completely reimagine what a Senior Center looks like in Los Angeles.

Picture a place in every neighborhood where older Angelenos can go for activities, food, and wellness checks -- but also interact with their younger neighbors. A city building with dedicated spaces for seniors, but also where other residents are invited to pitch in and serve. A place where a senior can go to share a need, and have it met by a member of their own community.

It works like this: seniors at the center tell a senior center employee what task they need help with, such as yard work or their taxes. That employee would be charged with coordinating services -- matching seniors with needs to neighborhood volunteers, who use an app to get updates on what they can provide. The volunteer signs up to complete the task -- so the older resident gets the help they need, and two neighbors get to establish a connection.

This concept is based on the village movement, a senior service model I love that’s growing in popularity around the country. There’s no reason why a city office couldn’t form the hub around which a community network like this is built -- using the app also provides an easy activity for students and neighborhood groups.

A re-imagined Senior Center could also offer elderly residents something that’s proven to keep them healthier and more active: volunteering opportunities of their own.

In my time with SELAH, the homeless services non-profit I co-founded, I saw over and over again how neighborhood volunteering opportunities benefited not just the people seeking resources, but the volunteers as well. A significant number of the neighbors who came to volunteer at SELAH were seniors. Some had lost their spouses and were seeking community -- they found a surrogate family in the group we built and the participants we served. I did too.

That’s why I consider the Community Access Centers we’ve proposed in our Housing and Homelessness policy to be a solution to address both homelessness and senior health. These Access Centers could be co-located with Senior Centers, with designated facilities within the same buildings. That way, we can create a community ecosystem of mutual aid, where seniors are having their own needs met while contributing to their community, and people of all ages and walks of life are brought into contact with each other.

Seniors won’t just benefit from Community Access Centers as volunteers, though: the elderly are the fastest-growing demographic of people who are homeless. Centers where they can reliably seek out care and companionship are especially vital for seniors who are homeless -- as is the opportunity to interact with people their own age.

Better city planning

Let’s reiterate: Los Angeles just isn’t planned in a senior-friendly way right now. People’s homes are often located far from basic necessities, forcing residents to drive long distances. Public transit is difficult to manage. Just walking around neighborhoods leaves people exposed and vulnerable.

Every planning decision we make must be with older Angelenos in mind. Purposeful Aging Los Angeles, a City and County initiative to build a more senior-friendly city, laid out a few solutions from our planning code. These include the use of:

  • form-based codes, which allow communities to plan for a combination of uses and housing types to make them more livable for people of all ages
  • universal design, which generates housing that can be used by people of any age
  • multigenerational urban planning, which offers communities features and services that cater to older residents
Let’s not allow the Purposeful Aging Los Angeles initiative to flounder, as so many other city plans have. We know planning tools at our disposal -- let’s use them!

It’s also of vital importance that we consider senior Angelenos when we design our streets. Right now, just crossing the street here can be deadly for older people: of all older adults 65 and older injured or killed while walking in California, 56% were crossing the street in a crosswalk at the time of the collisions, according to 2015 data from the Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System.

Slowing down traffic and increasing visibility are by far the best ways to keep older pedestrians safe, and we have a huge menu of design solutions to choose from: road diets, bulb-outs, better street lighting, raised medians, and daylighting intersections are just a few.

Furthermore, while many areas may have sidewalks, the condition of sidewalks or lack of age-friendly design features (i.e., curb ramps, raised cross walks etc.) often present obstacles to older adults and people with disabilities. Making the sidewalks usable for people of all ages and abilities deserves our urgent attention.

CENTERING SENIORS IN OUR POLICYMAKING

With our population aging so rapidly, serving older Angelenos should be a major priority at City Hall. Yet our city government is simply not set up to develop or deliver on aging policy. You can see how little of a priority is in our our government is set up.

Anyone at City Hall will tell you that the Department of Aging, which operates the 16 Multi-Purpose Centers, is a backwater. It’s completely isolated from the rest of city government. Representatives of the Department of Aging have worked to integrate their office with other departments, but this effort has resulted in a lot more studies and meetings than substantive policy changes.

As for City Councilmembers, aging policy simply is not a big part of their portfolio. There isn’t even a dedicated committee on aging. Issues related to seniors are folded into another committee: the Health, Education, Neighborhoods, Parks, Arts, and River Committee. Yes, you read that name right. Seniors are asked to share space with all of those other extremely broad categories -- on a committee that meets for about 15 total hours a year.

Our rapidly aging population comes with a need for innovation and urgency -- our city government must be set up to meet that need. Aging has to be at the table when we’re developing policy for all of the issues facing Los Angeles: housing and homelessness, transportation, immigration, and everything else.

The fix is simple: give aging policy an official place in our government structures. Break up the massive portfolio of the Health, Education, Neighborhoods, Parks, Arts, and River Committee and give seniors the attention they deserve on a dedicated Health and Aging Committee. Appoint an advisory committee to develop a specific set of policy recommendations around senior care -- not just studies. And give Neighborhood Councils the mandate and the tools to set up their own committees that speak for older residents -- some neighborhoods, like Mar Vista and Sylmar, already have them up and running.

SUPPORTING BETTER IN-HOME CARE FOR WORKERS AND CLIENTS

One of the ways in which older Angelenos are able to age in place is through the support of in-home care providers.

Home care providers are different from home healthcare workers, who administer medical care like wound care, physical therapy, injections, and so on, and are usually paid through insurance or Medicare. Care providers, on the other hand, primarily assist with non-medical personal care tasks such as bathing, cooking, light housework, and more. Paid home care providers also provide important respite for family members who continue to bear the burden for providing care for those in the home.

As our population ages and our state becomes less affordable, California is looking at a serious shortage in home care workers -- and the process for finding and paying for this service can be extremely difficult. There are government subsidies available to those who qualify, but middle-older Angelenos are often left out in the cold -- unable to qualify for government subsidies, but also sometimes unable to afford the service on their own.

Workers in the home care industry are also struggling. Many are paid under the table, sometimes less than minimum wage. Moreover, workers almost never have full time work in one household -- so they’re constantly traveling and dealing with scheduling nightmares.

Home care is often essential to aging in place successfully, so how can the city of LA make it accessible to more people and keep wages fair for workers at the same time?

My solution comes back to the idea of the neighborhood hub. LA can provide a resource where a city employee helps coordinate home care in a select area -- matching care providers with residents, and helping coordinate schedules so caregivers can work in multiple households. The hub would make it easier for caregivers to change their schedules or trade shifts if they needed to, and by helping workers coordinate with multiple clients, we’d help make sure workers ended up making full-time hours. Best of all, we’d create a stronger sense of community in the city.

Such hubs could be created in partnership with home care provision agencies, and potentially partnerships with technology companies like Honor that specialize in supporting better deployment of care workers.

A LOS ANGELES FOR ALL AGES

An aging population doesn’t have to be a crisis: with effective policy, we can embrace senior Angelenos and give people of all generations more ways to plug into our city’s social fabric. Our older residents have so much to offer -- and there’s so much we can offer them in return.