Ruth Finkelstein: Making NYC A Senior-Friendly City

Her extensive research into aging and the city promises to transform urban living for seniors.

AFFILIATION: New York Academy of Medicine
LOCATION: New York City

New York is getting friendlier—to older people, that is. Age Friendly NYC, a commission backed by the Office of the Mayor, the New York City Council, and the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM), has crafted a list of 59 initiatives to make the city a better place for seniors. And that’s a good thing, because according to U.S. Census projections, the population of senior citizens will increase by nearly 68 percent by 2030. But those numbers don’t scare Ruth Finkelstein, the senior vice president for policy and planning at NYAM and a leading force behind the effort: “It’s good news, because guess what? The reason we have all these old people is that they’re not dying!”

Finkelstein’s training as an anthropologist has served her well during the more than 2,000 (and counting) community consultations with seniors that are shaping the Age Friendly NYC mission. Previously, she spent years working with people with HIV/AIDS, drug users, and immigrants. All are, like the elderly, “populations that society stigmatizes based on erroneous assumptions,” she says. The new initiatives range from simple and inexpensive, such as cordoning off part of a community pool for seniors, to complex, like an extensive, citywide evaluation of the Department of Transportation’s crosswalk safety.

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Three neighborhoods have been named Aging Improvement Districts as part of a pilot program: the Upper West Side and East Harlem, in Manhattan, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn. These represent areas where many of the changes seniors asked for in interviews are being actively implemented. The initiatives have won eager cooperation from local businesses, institutions, and elected officials. “Older people vote,” says Finkelstein, “and businesses need customers.”

The bottom line? “The best place to grow old is where you live,” Finkelstein says. People who are able to remain in their homes and actively integrated into their communities as they age retain access to networks and resources they’ve spent years cultivating and experience better outcomes across the board: reduced likelihood of depression, retained cognitive function, and better overall health. “We’re moving past the old model that treats aging like a disease,” Finkelstein says. “It’s part of life.”

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