San Diego County aims to create better aging support system through AARP program

San Diego County is rapidly aging, so to meet the needs of the growing population of seniors, local governments are hoping to make their communities more welcoming through AARP’s Age-Friendly Communities initiative.

The program aims to transform cities, towns and states into more inclusive places for people of all ages through efforts to improve public transportation, community spaces, access to services like health care, affordable housing availability, sidewalks and intersections. Within each participating city, county or state, staff collaborate with local residents to create five-year action plans.

“We really wanted to provide a framework for communities that wanted to become great places for all ages to do that,” said Mike Watson, Liveable Communities director at AARP.

Through those efforts, the hope is that older adults are able to age in place longer, which studies have shown can help improve mental well-being and longevity.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that policies geared toward helping older adults remain in their homes longer can reduce long-term health care costs for both individuals and their families, as well as the Medicare and Medicaid health care systems.

AARP reports that more than 700 communities across the nation are members of the Network of Age-Friendly State and Communities. Member communities have access to expert-led webinars and resources to identify and assess community needs.

California, the county and six local cities have all joined the program. The local cities are Carlsbad, Chula Vista, La Mesa, National City, San Diego and Solana Beach.

“It’s really good if all different types of organizations focus on making whatever they do ‘age-friendly’ because our whole society is aging,” said Kristen Smith, chief of agency operations with the county’s Aging and Independence Services.

“We have 700,000 people in San Diego County aged 60 and over, and the oldest — those age 85 and up, who are the most frail — they’re growing really fast.”

Solana Beach is the latest city to start the process of joining, and staff are working to build out its own action plan in collaboration with AARP, Social Policy Institute of San Diego State University and San Diego Foundation.

An international effort

AARP launched its initial Liveable Communities pilot program about 15 years ago in an effort to develop local partnerships and better understand the needs of members. The programs included efforts to help seniors update their homes so they could age in place, and improvements to cityscapes that made them safer and more walkable.

As the Liveable Communities program grew and spread to more places, AARP was selected by the World Health Organization in 2012 to oversee its Age-friendly World efforts in the United States.

As part of its international framework, WHO has identified eight areas of urban life that can become barriers to the well-being of older adults. These include transportation, housing, social participation, inclusion, outdoor space and buildings, health care, civic participation/employment and communication/access to information.

WHO — and AARP as the American branch of the program — aims to encourage healthy and active aging that allow older adults to age safely, live in a place that meets their needs and be free from poverty.

A 2019 AARP survey found that 60 percent of participating communities had achieved a public policy change, 34 percent achieved a private-sector investment or action, and 85 percent listed other forms of success, like increased awareness of livability issues and more collaborations with residents.

Although AARP’s program is designed for five-year cycles, Watson said many communities choose to renew, hold subsequent planning meetings with residents and update their goals once they meet their initial milestones.

“This is a long-term evolution, and a long-term approach that communities are trying to pivot toward,” he said. “By and large, we’ve seen a lot of those original communities really advance their work.”

New opportunities for seniors

San Diego County’s Aging & Independence Services became the first regional agency to join the AARP Age-Friendly Network in March 2016, with Chula Vista enlisting a few months later.

The county’s Age Well action plan focuses on five main areas, including health and community support, housing, social participation, transportation and dementia-friendly programs.

One of the biggest focus areas for improvement at the moment is addressing the needs of unhoused seniors and those at risk of being evicted or losing their homes.

Nearly a quarter of unhoused people in San Diego are age 55 and older, according to the latest Regional Task Force on Homelessness point in time count data.

“As we age and retire, we tend to have lower incomes and fixed incomes, and with housing — especially in San Diego — the prices don’t get lower, they get higher,” Smith said.

To meet the needs of this demographic, the state has encouraged construction of accessory dwelling units — ADUs for short — by passing a number of laws to make building them easier.

The county has also taken steps toward improving access to housing, including the unanimous Board of Supervisors decision last month to establish The Pilot Shallow Rental Subsidy Program. The program will provide qualifying older adults with a monthly rental subsidy of $500 per month for up to 18 months.

Qualifying applicants are those age 55 and older who are the head of a household and whose income doesn’t exceed 50 percent of the region’s median income. They must be considered “severely rent-burdened,” meaning they pay more than half their income toward housing.

“That will save people on the edge from becoming homeless,” said Bob Prath, AARP California Executive Council member. “The best home that you can have is the home you have now.”

The San Diego resident said the key thing to remember with the age-friendly initiative is that leaders are working to make their communities more functional for everyone.

Prath pointed to National City’s Kimball Highland project — which broke ground in August — as a good example of building a mixed-use space to provide easier access to health care and services. The $125 million development will include 145 apartments for families earning $64,000 a year or less, an 8,000-square-foot senior center, health clinic and Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly, or PACE.

“The old zoning code where all the single-family houses are on one side of the freeway and everything you need is on the other side of the freeway? People are learning that that was a mistake,” Prath said.

Having more cities join the network will benefit seniors throughout the region, he said, as each agency learns from and inspires others.

There are a few local cities in the early stages of planning to join the program, with Solana Beach holding planning sessions this month to build out its road map.

The city will host a virtual English language session on Oct. 25, an in-person English session on the morning of Oct. 27 and an in-person Spanish session that evening. To RSVP, email Brenda Bothel-Hammond at [email protected] by Oct. 21, or visit for more information.