By Marian Leah Knapp
The world’s population is getting older.
Acknowledging that is easy. But for business owners, knowing what to do about it is much more complex.
For the first time in history there are more people in the world age 65 and over than there are those who are under age 15. The proportions of “older” and “younger” will never reverse either. People are living longer and fewer children are being born.
From now and forever, we will be older as a global society.
Municipal leaders in both Newton and Needham are paying attention to and learning about their aging residents. The Needham Public Health Department is studying the obstacles people face as they age there. In 2013, the town opened the beautiful “Center at the Heights.” In February 2016, the City of Newton applied to become a member of the WHO/AARP Age-Friendly/Livable Community Network, which allows people all over the world and in the United States to communicate about their “age-friendly” activities.
The concerns across communities are common, with perhaps the lack of appropriate, affordable and accessible housing at the forefront.
Transportation is a significant factor, too, as many older people struggle to get to doctors’ appointments, cultural events, and jobs – whether as volunteers or paid employees. These are all elements of inclusiveness.
This is where the business community can have an impact and benefit too.
First, businesses can find ways to serve and accommodate their older customers. Second, they can meet their own staffing needs by providing jobs for a population of folks who want to work.
Let’s start with ways to serve: There are a number of steps a business can take to enable elders to patronize a business. Most of these are not only good for seniors but for everyone — including people who push strollers: Keep sidewalks free of snow and ice in the winter; eliminate barriers such as steps to get inside; and have bathrooms that accommodate people with canes or walkers. Certainly, some of these items are not possible because of the physical configuration of older properties, but when possible, these are things that can improve access and your bottom line.
The second item is employment. Many older people want to work either as a way to stay connected in the community or to earn income to help with expenses. Often people are surprised to learn that in 2010, the median total income for a man over 65 living alone in Newton was $30,438; for a woman it was $ $26,300. Twenty-eight percent of heads of households age 65 and over reported annual income of less than $25,000.
Employing an older adult can make a significant impact on their ability to maintain a safe home, stay in the community and avoid isolation. But don’t just do it to be nice. Retired people bring valuable knowledge and experience at a time when many area businesses struggle to fill jobs.
Initially we must define exactly what skills are needed in the business community, identify the assets that residents offer, identify the barriers that prevent older people from joining the labor pool, and figure out how to bridge the gap between what is available and what is needed. Locally, there are several agencies that specifically recruit older adults, so there are models from which we can learn.
The first step for individuals and business owners is to enter into age-friendly conversations and to generate intervention ideas to confront the fact that our communities are aging. Once we are willing to do that, then we can begin a dialogue about what to do next.
It is a challenging but exciting time. It is an opportunity for us who are living, aging, and doing business in our communities to think and act creatively together around a critical issue that affects each and every one of us.
Marian Leah Knapp, PhD, is chair of the Newton Council on Aging and has published two books on aging, “Aging in Places: Reflective Preparation for the Future” and “A Steadfast Spirit: The Essence of Caregiving.” Her blog (voicesofaging.com/) focuses on the issues that people face as they get older.