Lakeland is applying to be named an age-friendly community under AARP’s Age Friendly Community Network, an international effort launched in 2006 to help cities prepare for rapid population aging and urbanization.
The process started in 2010 when the City of Lakeland partnered with Lakeland Vision to form the Lakeland Leadership Council on Seniors. In 2012, a strategic plan was drafted and approved by the City Commission. Don Selvage is the City Commission’s liaison to the seniors council.
“The council works towards fulfilling a Lakeland Vision goal, which is to ensure Lakeland seniors experience a high quality of life in a variety of living situations,” said Laura Rodriguez. executive director of Lakeland Vision. “They will also be involved in the community and have good access to services including senior centers, health care, continuing education and public transportation.”
Proponents of the age-friendly community designation point to the 2010 U.S. Census to support their case. At that time, half of the city’s population was already over age 50. Lakeland’s total population was 97,422 and 25,961 were over the age of 60.
As a precursor to the current, effort Lakeland was designated a Community for a Lifetime in 2014 by the Florida Department of Elder Affairs. That program focuses on successful aging through improvements in housing, mobility, transportation and health. The idea was that every action recommended from the plan would not only benefit the elders but also citizens of all ages.
The new goal to designate Lakeland age-friendly under the AARP program started late last year.
“You have both ends of the age spectrum (elders and millennials) coming to a point in their lives where they want the same things,” said Steve Bissonette, president of VISTE, Volunteers in Service to the Elderly. “When you have a conscious effort to make your community age-friendly, it means when you’re making a sidewalk project more accessible for seniors, you’re also doing that for a mother and a baby carriage … It’s a universal approach to saying that we’re making our community friendly to people of all ages and when you do that, it benefits all ages.”
Lakeland is among 13 Florida cities going through the AARP program. The only other one in Polk County is Winter Haven.
The council is in the second step of a five-step process. The council has submitted an application to AARP, which has been accepted, and is now entering a two-year stage where a survey will be created to better understand what changes need to be made to accommodate all ages.
After the surveys are completed, the data will be analyzed by Dr. Larry Ross from Florida Southern College and a five-year plan will be created.
“I’m most looking forward to the community engagement and educational component that goes along with this,” Bissonnette said. “It gets people more consciously thinking about what they are going to do when they get older.”
Organizers estimate the costs to coordinate the application and survey, including hiring a part-time employee, at $40,000. The City Commission has agreed to provide $20,000, and Lakeland Vision is soliciting private organizations for the rest.
According to AARP, the benefits of this membership include access to a global network of participating communities, opportunities for partnership with other cities, access to key information about the program, such as the latest news and information about best practices, events, results, challenges and new initiatives and public recognition of the community’s commitment to become more age-friendly.