Is age-friendliness for everyone? Or just for older people?

Judith Davey


“towards a society for all ages”

This was the slogan for the United Nations’ International Year of Older Persons in 1999.

But if you google anything about the year, not to mention “age-friendliness,” the photos you see will almost always depict older people. What does ‘age-friendliness’ actually mean? Is the inclusion of ‘all ages’ a way of advancing design, housing features and urban developments that take specifically older adults into account while asserting that this will lead to universal good/benefit? Do age-friendly initiatives really create an environment which benefits all ages?

It is interesting to note that, well before the International Year of Older Persons, the World Health Organisation (WHO), now the main global protagonist of age friendly cities and communities, changed its focus from “the elderly” to “ageing,” to remind everyone that good health is everybody’s business.

More recently, the New Zealand Health of Older People Strategy changed its title to the Healthy Ageing Strategy. Do these changes recognise a shift in thinking, to a wider view? If we say “older people” or “seniors”, this focuses attention on a fixed group, identified by age or life stage. ‘Ageing’ attempts to resolve this limitation by focusing on a process which everyone is undergoing from the moment they are born and makes it easier for everyone to identify with it. It also avoids the problem of having to suggest an age at which people can begin to be considered “old”.

WHO has continued to support this trend, stating “An age-friendly city emphasizes enablement rather than disablement; it is friendly for all ages and not just ‘elder-friendly’”. Indeed, the notion that ‘age-friendliness benefits all ages’ forms one of the arguments to support investment in urban improvements, especially the physical aspects of urban design: better footpaths and pedestrian crossings, parks and recreation facilities, and transport services, aiming for a ‘community for all ages’. Is this a great idea to promote “buy-in “or does it run the danger of eclipsing the specific needs of older people?

Intergenerational factors
Using “ageing” as the focus brings in intergenerational issues. Some studies in the Age-friendly Cities and Communities (AFCC) literature emphasise the importance of opportunities for social integration and interaction between older and younger people. This shifts the age-friendly focus away from older people to one where social and physical facilities benefit everyone. For example, a study of younger and older adult bus users found that creating an age-friendly bus service would benefit all users. Measures to combat social exclusion often include intergenerational interaction and opportunities to develop activities that span the generations. Social relationships are important to the well-being of people of all ages. And promoting intergenerational solidarity is helpful in combatting arguments which pit the generations against each other, such as tax and retirement income policies.


[1] WHO (2007) Global age friendly cities: A guide. World Health Organisation, Geneva. NETWORK

[2] Broome, K., McKenna, K., Fleming, J. and Worrall, L. (2009) Bus use and older people: A literature review applying the person-environment-occupation model in macro practice. Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 16 p.3–12.


Participation in volunteering can be a way to promote intergenerational relationships. These could include projects in which ‘young old’ are paired with ‘old–old’. Younger seniors could be encouraged to provide psychological and physical support for older seniors. This is a basis for ‘befriending” schemes, such as Age Concern’s Accredited Visitors Service.

Further examples of intergenerational programmes come from the USA.

• Generations of Hope, in Illinois , represents an intergenerational approach designed to promote social capital and social inclusion. It fosters mutually beneficial social relationships between older adults and younger people who are experiencing personal and social challenges, such as substance abuse, domestic violence or homelessness.

• Communities for All Ages (CFAA) is also based on an intergenerational approach to community-building that involves residents of all ages, local organisations, policy makers and funders. Attempts to break through age-specific ‘silos’ include multi-generational neighbourhood learning and community centres, Farmers Markets and Arts Festivals.

However, the extent to which intergenerational programmes and structures such as these result in sustained social capital formation and social inclusion needs to be assessed. Other initiatives include intergenerational meeting places to facilitate social contact; programmes to encourage connection with neighbours; intergenerational and multi-ethnic community centres, library programmes, and cultural events. Such initiatives have been frequently identified as ways to encourage age-integrated neighbourhoods.

“Design for the young and you exclude the old; design for the old and you include the young.”

The notion of ‘a design for all ages’ has been closely associated with Universal Design, which is based on this belief . The approach can be extended from the design of houses, appliances, furniture and home utensils to neighbourhoods in which different generational groups meet, interact and negotiate shared use of their environment. This is another way to enhance social and emotional understanding between age groups, increase harmony, and promote sharing.



[5] Biggs, S. and Carr, A. (2016) Age Friendliness, Childhood, and Dementia: Toward Generationally Intelligent Environments. In Moulaert, T. and Garon, S. (Editors) Age-Friendly Cities and Communities in International Comparison: Political Lessons, Scientific Avenues, and Democratic Issues. Springer International Publishing, Switzerland.

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit
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