Calls for Rhode Island to become more “Age Friendly”

Published in RINewsToday on January 24, 2022

On Aug. 3, 2020, The Decade of Healthy Aging 2020-2030 proposal was endorsed by the 73rd World Health Assembly. It was presented to the U.N. General Assembly Dec. 14, 2020, (Resolution 75/131), leading to the proclamation of a U.N. Decade of Healthy Aging (2021-2030).

The four-page Resolution expressed concern that, despite the predictability of population aging and its accelerating pace, the world is not sufficiently prepared to respond to the rights and needs of older people. It acknowledges that the aging of the population impacts our health systems but also many other aspects of society, including labor and financial markets and the demand for goods and services, such as education, housing, long-term care, social protection and information. It thus requires a total whole-of-society approach to make changes.

The passed Resolution called on the World Health Organization (WHO) to lead the implementation of the decade, in collaboration with the other U.N. organizations. Governments, international and regional organizations, civil society, the private sector, academia and the media are urged to actively support the decade’s goals.

According to WHO,  the world’s population is aging at a swifter pace than any time in the past and this will have an impact on all aspects of society.  There are more than 1 billion people aged 60 years or older, most of these individuals living in low- and middle-income countries. “Many do not have access to even the basic resources necessary for a life of meaning and of dignity. Many others confront multiple barriers that prevent their full participation in society,” says WHO.  

In a December 14, 2020, statement announcing the passage of Resolution 75/131, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, stated that it “sends a clear signal that it is only by working as one, within the United Nations system and with governments, civil society and the private sector that we will be able to not only add years to life, but also life to years.”

“By adopting a U.N.-wide approach in support of healthy aging, we will be able to galvanize international action to improve the lives of older people, their families and communities, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond,” Dr Etienne Krug, Director of the Department of Social Determinants of Health at added World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO says that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic highlights the seriousness of existing gaps in policies, systems and services and a decade of concerted global action is urgently needed to ensure that older people can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment.  

WHO’s worldwide initiatives would seek to change “how we think, feel and act toward age and aging; facilitate the ability of older people to participate in and contribute to their communities and society; deliver integrated care and primary health services that are responsive to the needs of the individual; and provide access to long-term care for older people who need it.” 

Healthy Aging Baseline Data Released

Just days ago, WHO released, “Decade of Healthy Ageing: Baseline Report,” in all official U.N. languages, to support member states, academia, civil society, U.N. partners and others to aid in evidence-based decision making on the policies, programmes and services needed to support all people, in particular older persons, to live long and healthy lives.

The Baseline report, released January 20, 2021, brings together data available for measuring healthy aging, defined by WHO as “the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables well-being in older age.”

According to WHO, optimizing “functional ability” is the goal of the Decade of Healthy Aging, which began in 2021 and addresses five interrelated abilities that all older people should enjoy:  the ability to meet basic needs; to continue to learn and make decisions; to be mobile; to build and maintain relationships; and to contribute to society. The report also takes a look at people’s capacities (including physical and mental) and the environments (spanning attitudes, services, natural and built) in which people live, which contribute to functional ability.

The 203-page baseline report, now available in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish, introduces the concepts of health aging and strategies for achieving the initiatives goals by 2030. It provides a first-time baseline (in 2020) for healthy aging worldwide and takes a look at what improvements that can be made by 2030.  It documents progress and scenarios for improvement. The report addresses how stakeholders can work together and impact the functional abilities of older people. Finally, it outlines next steps detailing opportunities that can increase collaboration and impact by 2023, the next reporting period.

Is Rhode Island Becoming Age Friendly?   

Maureen Maigret, policy consultant and chair of the Aging in Community Subcommittee of Rhode Island’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council, says that many Rhode Island communities are involved to 1 degree or another in what we consider age-friendly activities. “The initiative is usually led by the local senior center and in some instances volunteer programs such as RSVP and AARP and The Village Common of RI,” she says.

According to Maigret, over the last five years the state’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council Aging (LTCCC) in Community Subcommittee has adopted and continues to work to support WHO’s decadelong initiative, adding the domains of Food & Nutrition and Economic Security and Supports to Remain at Home.

Maigret noted that Newport was the first community to join the AARP age-friendly network; Cranston, Providence and Westerly following. The state’s Office of Healthy Aging has adopted its State Plan on Aging, calling for Rhode Island to become an age-friendly state.

Governor Dan McKee’s proposed budget for FY2023 includes an additional $200,000 for local senior programs increasing the total amount to $1 million. Maigret calls for adding an additional  $800,000 so each municipality would be allocated $10 per person aged 65 and over to support local senior programs. Advocates had promoted this since at least 2018 to make up for prior budget cuts and inflation, she says.

Don’t forget improving and expanding the state’s transportation options for older Rhode Islanders who have mobility needs and are no longer able to drive. “This could be accomplished by adding trip types to the state funded Elderly Transportation Program,” she says, noting that trips are now limited for trips to medical appointments, adult day care services, meal sites and Insight. Why not provide trips for older adults to access volunteer activities, she adds.

“We also need to adequately fund our subsidized home care programs by providing realistic reimbursement to address the huge workforce challenges we face,” warns Maigret, noting that seniors are waiting over two months to get service. “This is a travesty,” she says.

“It is tragic that the state’s Office of Healthy Aging is so under resourced in so many areas,” says Maigret, putting the spotlight on the lack of affordable home maintenance and chore services to keep people in their homes. “There is also a need to provide greater supports for our family caregivers who provide the vast majority of caregiving in our state and nation,” she adds. 

Getting Municipalities Involved

Maigret suggests that Rhode Island’s cities and towns review their community’s Comprehensive Plans to see how age-friendliness is addressed. “This is what Newport did. They can also form local Steering Committees to identify local needs and develop recommendations to address them both at the local and state level,” she says.

Governor Dan McKee can also issue an Executive Order directing all state departments and agencies to review programs and policies for age-friendliness and provide incentive funding for local communities to assess their communities. Several states have done this. NY, MA, CO, FL, MI, ME, CA, she says. 

While aging advocates pushed for McKee and lawmakers to allocate ARPA COVID-19 federal funds to make Rhode Island a more age friendly, it’s gotten little attention, says West Warwick resident Vin Marzullo. “Quite frankly its shocking — that there is yet an explicit acknowledgement that the aging community needs resources, support, more collaborative arrangements, to extend living in-place. There seems not to be any sensitivity to the fact that 90% of the COVID deaths were adults 60 and over – and 53% were in congregate care,” says Marzullo, a  well-known aging advocate who served as a federal civil rights and national service administrator.

“The ARPA funds were authorized to be used to ameliorate the impact on the populations, communities, sectors, etc. that were adversely impacted. Our older adults must be in the conversation and not neglected,” says Marzullo.

Maigret agrees. “It is tragic that neither the McKee-Matos’ “Rhode Island 2030 Plan” nor the Rhode Island Foundation report outlining the use of ARPA funds gave sufficient attention to the needs of our state’s older population, she says, warning that this population is increasing, and getting more economically insecure and diverse,” she says.

“When we look at the exceedingly high cost of residential institutional care,  much of which is paid for taxpayers through government programs, we can make a strong case that funding programs helping older persons remain healthy and living in their homes and communities are important investments,” says Maigret. 

To obtain a copy of WHO’s “Decade of Healthy Ageing: Baseline Report,” go to:

https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240017900.