Connecting the Dots to Make Austin an Age-Progressive City

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Interview with Teresa Sansone Ferguson, Executive Director, AustinUp

Image of Teresa Sansone Ferguson, Executive Director of AustinUp

Teresa Sansone Ferguson

The recent IBM study “Loneliness and the aging population – how businesses and governments can address a looming crisis” noted that any solution designed to mitigate loneliness must involve wide range of stakeholders – family, caregivers, healthcare practitioners, social workers, and more – all of whom want to work in a more connected way.

During the course of our research, we spoke to many organizations that are developing these kind of connected interventions at the national, community and individual level. One community-based example is AustinUp, whose executive director, Teresa Sansone Ferguson, spoke to us about the range of public-private partnerships they have built in Austin and the innovative programs that serve not only older adults, but prepare the next generation for the future of aging. Below are excerpts from our conversation.

Austin has one of the fastest growing demographics of people between the age of 55 and 64 in the nation. The 2010 city census pointed to a dramatic increase in the city’s aging population, and in 2014 Forbes magazine placed Austin third on its list of “U.S. Cities Going Gray The Fastest.” In response, Mayor Lee Leffingwell created the “Mayor’s Task Force on Aging,” which consisted of older adults, people working in the aging space, NPOs, city/county government, businesses and more. Their report, “Embracing an Age-diverse Austin,” delivered a set of recommendations to the City of Austin as well as the community.

There were entrepreneurs, businesses, nonprofits, agencies and caregivers who were doing their own thing. Nobody was putting it all together. Efforts were already underway in Austin to improve life for older adults, but those programs were scattered and siloed. AustinUP was created in 2014 to “connect the dots” across stakeholders and to raise the profile of our senior population across the community. We connect entities such as AARP, NPOs, and state, county and city organizations to work on complex issues related to aging. One example is the Age-friendly Austin Action Plan that was adopted by the Austin City Council in November, 2016. And with the ATX Aging & Innovation Summit, we are developing the infrastructure to help bring new ideas to market, faster.

Ageism is real and there’s a tendency to view older people as one cohort – but they’re not. This is a very multifaceted demographic. The people we serve span a wide age range and experience a variety of issues. For example, there are unmet challenges related to LGBT aging, including a bias against LGBT residents in assisted living and retirement communities. So, we helped form the LGBT Coalition on Aging to ensure an LGBT voice in the Age-friendly Austin Plan and to take action to address these specific concerns, including affiliating with SAGE USA (Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders).

In the 21st century, average lifespan is trending towards 90…so does it make sense to spend a third of your life in “retirement”? We’re currently working to enlighten businesses about the value of a multigenerational workforce. Last September, AustinUP hosted a “55+ in ATX: Job / Volunteer Fair” and this year, we launched a series “paid job-only” fairs. Working with Austin Community College, we also have kickstarted an effort with local employers, policy makers, educators, media and community organizations to develop ways to better utilize the skills and experience of our 50+ demographic.

If you want to want to prevent loneliness and keep older adults connected and engaged with their communities, two factors are key: Transportation and Housing. Concerns about transportation and housing are brought up at every AustinUP event. Our city and business leaders need to look at urban planning through the eyes of an older adult. We need more walkable neighborhoods, more and better options for public transportation, safer sidewalks, public parks designed for all ages, and accessory dwelling units (ADUs) that can serve as rental income for older homeowners or a less costly places to live.

Technology is important but it can’t fully replace the human touch. When it comes to integrating technology into our lives, we know that “one size does NOT fit all.” New innovations such as self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and virtual reality can and should play an important role to improve all of our lives. But, we’re not talking to older adults enough to ask them what they want or need.

And technology is just one component to help people stay connected to the people, communities and activities they love. No tool or gadget will ever replace a personal call or visit from a family member. In other words, call your mom!

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