How NYC became a global leader for senior living—one Zumba class at a time.
hen you think about great places to grow old and retire, New York City doesn’t immediately spring to mind. It’s outrageously expensive. It can be particularly dangerous for the elderly: Being struck by a vehicle is the second leading cause of injury-related death for seniors. The subway, which opened its first subterranean trains in 1904, is a system mainly reached by long, crowded stairways into the underground—not exactly senior-friendly. And although the city is no longer notorious for its murder rate—annual homicides dropped from 2,262 in 1990 to just 332 in 2014, according to the New York Police Department—areas like East Harlem, with one of the city’s largest populations of low-income seniors, still have comparatively high levels of violent crime. And—to state the obvious—it gets cold, really cold.
But you won’t see Norma Negron moving to Florida or Arizona anytime soon.
Negron starts her day with a dance choreography class. That is, unless she has her Zumba workout. Or her doll-making lessons. The chatty 69-year-old retired homemaker says she would take guitar lessons, quilting and painting, but those classes conflict with her salsa group and with a multimedia workshop where she makes jewelry, greeting cards and pillows.
It wasn’t always this way. Negron fell into a deep depression after her grandson was killed, sometimes not leaving the house except to run essential errands. She was reluctant to accept a girlfriend’s invitation to visit the senior center in her neighborhood, she says, because she thought she would only find “elderly people sitting around drawing; it wasn’t going to be any fun. But when I got here, it was totally different.
“It really, really has changed my life,” she says of the Carter Burden/Leonard Covello Senior Center where she takes classes. “I love it. And I would be here every day if I didn’t have stuff to do at home.”
Home for Negron is East Harlem, the bustling, ethnically diverse neighborhood just north of Central Park, where the smell of shrimp fried rice mixes with the sound of Latin music. The center—on the outskirts of East Harlem—is one of New York City’s 251 places for older residents to have a meal, play billiards, tinker with computers or learn Chinese fan dancing. It’s just part of what the city that never sleeps is doing to accommodate its growing population of older residents who, like 90 percent of their contemporaries across the country, would rather age in place in their own homes.
New York is “one of the global leaders” in adapting to the needs of older residents, says John Beard, the Geneva-based director of the Department of Aging and Life Course for the World Health Organization.
In 2007, WHO initiated an ambitious project to encourage age-friendly cities, with a range of goals that could apply to every metropolis in the world. The details included tangible things like non-slippery pavements, buildings with elevators, easy access to public toilets, and plenty of outdoor seating, along with fuzzier concepts like “respect and social inclusion.” New York was the first to join WHO’s global network of age-friendly cities.
East Harlem: New York City’s Senior Hotspot
A glimpse into the lives of New York City’s seniors and how the city is working to hear their voices and meet their needs.
“There was a genuine attempt to consult with older people in the city” on what mattered to them, Beard says. In addition, the city drew from a number of different municipal departments, including parks, health and police, to figure out “what slipped through the net,” he says. “Arising from that, the whole world has been interested.”
What it’s meant for New York is a slew of 59 initiatives, from the creation of pedestrian “safety islands” (so that slower walkers can have a place to stop if they only make it halfway across the street before the light changes) to seniors-only hours at public swimming pools to the use of off-duty school buses to take seniors grocery shopping or to a laundromat. The program is jointly steered and funded by the New York Academy of Medicine, the New York City Council and the mayor’s office.
The improvements have been pushed, in large part, by the reality of a graying world. As birth rates drop and people live longer, many countries in the next 20 years are going to have as many citizens over the age of 65 as they have schoolchildren. “Many people think this is just the rich world,” Beard says. “But some of the most rapid aging is occurring in lower and middle-income countries like China, Vietnam, Iran and Chile.” WHO reports that the global population of people over the age of 60 was 11 percent in 2006 but will reach 22 percent in 2050.
In addition to being a leader in WHO’s age-friendly cities initiative, New York has gone a step further by creating what it calls “aging improvement districts,” where many of the age-friendly initiatives are concentrated. The city started pilot programs in 2010 in three neighborhoods—East Harlem, the Upper West Side and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents East Harlem, says the academy of medicine approached her and asked for her support. “I said, ‘It sounds great.’ Anything we can do to make life easier for seniors, to improve their quality of life” is good. In October, Mark-Viverito announced that the city would expand the aging improvement districts to 10 more city neighborhoods, with the goal of having every city district covered by 2018.
Ruth Finkelstein, who helped launch the program, says that, for seniors, these districts are about nothing less than “reclaiming your neighborhood and reclaiming your world.” And, in that process, “pushing the boundaries of the world out, out, out.”