How communities are helping residents age in place

Planning for aging populations is not a new concept, but it is becoming more important as the number of seniors in northeastern Illinois grows. About 13 percent of the region’s population — more than 1 million people — were seniors age 65 and older in 2018.

Local governments can help prepare by prioritizing planning efforts that support aging in place and improve quality of life for seniors.

Photo of three older adults

What is aging in place?

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) defines aging in place as “sustaining residents’ ability to remain in their homes and communities as they grow older if they choose.” Older adults face unique challenges when it comes to being active in their communities. But historically, buildings and communities have not been designed to address the needs of seniors. Today, municipalities across northeastern Illinois are working on initiatives to allow people to remain in their communities.

For example, more than a dozen communities in the region now permit, or are considering to permit, accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in their zoning ordinances. ADUs — also known as granny flats — are separate housing units on single-family residential lots. ADUs can provide affordable housing options for older adults and support multigenerational living. 

The City of Harvey also took action when aging residents expressed concerns about the lack of local resources to help them stay in their homes. In July 2020, Harvey formed a volunteer-led Senior Services Division. Despite limited resources, the Senior Services Division is making impressive strides to improve access to services by advocating for seniors.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to age-friendly planning, communities can learn from efforts like those in Harvey. Age-friendly planning practices not only provide a tremendous benefit for seniors, they can make the region more healthy, livable, and sustainable for people of all ages.

How have communities implemented age-friendly initiatives?

Several communities in northeastern Illinois have established guides, services, and other initiatives aimed at helping residents age in place. While the COVID-19 pandemic has put a pause on some of these programs, the following examples highlight how public policies and public-private partnerships can help make communities more suitable for seniors.

Update building code to improve accessibility

In 2003, the Village of Bolingbrook created a visitability code that requires all new homes to include design principles that allow access for all people, regardless of age or physical ability. While a perception of higher construction costs caused some initial hesitation, the village found that costs are minimal and homes incorporating visitability features are more marketable. There are now over 1,700 homes with full compliance. The ordinance includes the following criteria:

  • Entrance: All homes must have at least one step-free entrance.
  • Doors and hallways: All exterior and interior doors must be at least three feet wide.
  • Bathroom: There must be at least one bathroom on the floor closest to grade level. Bathroom walls must be provided with wall framing to support grab bars.
  • Electrical wall switches: All wall switches that control light fixtures and fans must be located no higher than four feet above the floor.

Learn more about the visitability code.

Create guide to aging in place

The median age in Hawthorn Woods (44.5 years) is significantly older than Lake County overall (37.5 years). To embrace their growing senior population, the Village of Hawthorn Woods created A Guide to Aging in Place in 2019. The guide provides tools and resources to help residents remain healthy and happy in their community, including information on transportation, community services, socialization, and more. For example:

  • Transportation: Eligible residents can use RideLakeCounty to travel to medical appointments, shop, and access employment. RideLakeCounty, which provides curb-to-curb, dial-a-ride transportation services, is managed by Lake County, townships within Lake County, Lake County Coordinated Transportation Services Committee, and Pace Suburban Bus. The service is funded in part by grants from the Regional Transportation Authority. Local matching funds for these federal grants are provided by Lake County and Pace Suburban Bus.
  • Socialization: Ela Township created Ela 55+, a program that offers activities for residents 55 and older and connects them to services that promote independence and well-being. In addition to social events, Ela 55+ provides free services, such as pharmaceutical assistance and senior health insurance counseling. During COVID-19, the program also offers pharmacy and grocery pick-up services for participants.

Launch housing collaborative

The Northwest Suburban Housing Collaborative (NWSHC) was created in 2011 to help five municipalities — Arlington Heights, Buffalo Grove, Mount Prospect, Palatine, and Rolling Meadows — develop regional solutions to address the short- and long-term housing needs of participating communities. In 2013, the collaborative conducted an in-depth study of the housing needs of senior citizens. Since then, NWSHC has worked with multiple agencies and partners to create programs and resources for seniors. Although the Northwest Housing Collaborative is no longer meeting, these programs are being continued under the North West Housing Partnership, including:

  • Handyman Program: The Handyman Program helps seniors and homeowners who have disabilities with minor home repairs. The program is available for residents in Palatine and Wheeling Townships.
  • CAPABLE Program: The Community Aging in Place, Advancing Better Living for Elders (CAPABLE) program builds on the Handyman Program by coordinating the services of a nurse and occupational therapist to identify residents’ health goals and recommend home improvements that help them remain at home. CAPABLE is eligible to all residents 65 and older within northwest Cook County.

Establish commission on aging in place

In 2018, Oak Park formed a commission to advise the village board on policies that support aging in place. The Aging in Place Commission has since developed several initiatives:

  • Dementia Friendly Community: Local officials estimate that nearly 800 Oak Park residents 65 and older may be living with dementia. The Aging in Place Commission brought the public and community leaders together to learn about dementia and develop an action plan. The village then partnered with Oak Park Township, Oak Park Library, and the Park District of Oak Park to coordinate meetings, trainings, and form a group of volunteers. These efforts helped Oak Park earn designation in 2020 as a Dementia Friendly Community from the nonprofit organization Dementia Friendly America.
  • Business training: Oak Park businesses are encouraged to participate in dementia-friendly training to understand how to identify customers dealing with dementia and provide them with appropriate assistance.

Fire and fall prevention: The Oak Park Fire Department created an informational campaign to educate those working with seniors and people with cognitive impairment about fall prevention and fire safety.

How can my community take the next step to become age-friendly?

Northeastern Illinois communities can demonstrate their commitment to age-friendly planning by joining the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus’ Age-Friendly Communities Collaborative. The collaborative develops age-friendly policies and services for the region, while also acknowledging there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The region now has over 50 municipal members.

In addition to local organizations, communities can join a variety of national and global collaboratives to advance their age-friendly planning initiatives:

Table showing national and global collaboratives to advance age-friendly planning initiatives

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