Is age-friendliness just for older people?

Judith Davey 29/03/21

“towards a society for all ages” – the United Nations’ slogan for the International Year of Older Persons in 1999

But whenever you see a report with “age friendly” in its title, the accompanying photos almost always depict older people. What does ‘age-friendliness’ actually mean? Where does the “for all ages” come in?  Do age-friendly initiatives really create an environment which benefits all ages? How believable is the assertion that design, housing features and urban developments that take older adults into account will lead to universal good/benefit?

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 make the point that good health is everybody’s business.

More recently, the New Zealand Health of Older People Strategy, originally published in 2002,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’”.[1] 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’. This a great idea to promote “buy-in “so long as the specific needs of older people are given due prominence.

Intergenerational action

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. For example, a study of younger and older adult bus users found that creating an age-friendly bus service would benefit all users.[2] Measures to combat social exclusion often include intergenerational interaction and opportunities to develop activities that span the generations.  The Age Concern Accredited Visitors service is a good example of this, in which visitors and visitees often come from different generations. Another is the activities of the Student Volunteer Army. Promoting intergenerational solidarity is helpful in combatting arguments which pit the generations against each other, such as tax and retirement income policies.  

Other initiatives include intergenerationalmeeting places to facilitate social contact; programmes to encourage connection with neighbours – these often appeared spontaneously during the Covid 19 lock-downs in 2020; co-housing; intergenerational and multi-ethnic community centres, library programmes, and cultural events.  Such initiatives have been frequently identified as ways to encourage age-integrated neighbourhoods. The extent to which such intergenerational programmes and structures result in sustained social capital formation and social inclusion needs to be assessed.

Universal design

The notion of ‘a design for all ages’ is based on this belief that if you “Design for the young you exclude the old; design for the old and you include the young.” Universal Design, (sometimes also called inclusive design) is the design and structure of an environment so that it can be understood, accessed, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people, regardless of their age or ability[3].

In New Zealand, Lifetime Design Limited is a registered charity established by CCS Disability Action. Its goal is to foster and promote design standards that work for people right across life’s ages and abilities – from young families to older and disabled people.

A Lifemark™ rated home includes features that meet the needs of people of different ages and abilities and avoids barriers that may discriminate against people living in or visiting the home. Such homes are designed to be usable by a variety of people across their lifetime, without the need for major adaptation. The conclusion that “90% of people want to age in place but only 5% have homes that will allow it” seems to ring true.

Lifemark Design Standards are based on key principles:

Usable – thoughtful design features that meet the needs of people of different ages and abilities over time.

Adaptable – easy and safe access for all.

Accessible – to suit changing needs as we progress through life.

Safe – features that make home life safer and easier for all.

If modifications to meet these principles are added at a later stage, the cost is often very high and can entail a long and onerous retrofit, a conclusion supported by BRANZ[4] research.

Broadening the Age Friendly aim should include the extension of the lifetime/universal approach from the design of houses, appliances, furniture and home utensils to neighbourhoods in which inter-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]


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

who.int/ageing/projects/age_friendly_cities_network/en/ 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.

[3] http://www.aucklanddesignmanual.co.nz/design-subjects/universal_design

[4] Building Research Association of New Zealand. https://www.branz.co.nz/

[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 www.ageconcern.org.nz
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