Across the country—from Moro, Oregon, to Chelmsford, Massachusetts—projects are being built that aim to make life better for older adults. They include park improvements and new benches, better bus stations, and new library kiosks. But unlike typical community improvement projects that might take years to materialize, these projects are being fully built within six months.
The accelerated timeline is a stipulation behind the funding, which comes from AARP, the nonprofit that advocates for people ages 50 and older. The organization’s Community Challenge grant program has just awarded $3.4 million to 260 projects around the country. The projects must be built by the end of November. The hope is that quick implementation will translate into more substantial, long-term support for these initiatives.
One project in Silver City, New Mexico, seeks to convert a dead-end street into a gathering place for residents and provide a link between the city’s downtown and a public park. A project in St. Louis will revive a dilapidated transit stop. In the town of Moro, Oregon, a set of preapproved plans for small accessory dwelling units—sometimes known as granny flats—will be made freely available.
This year’s grantees join more than 800 projects funded with more than $9 million since the program’s launch in 2017. Grants average just a few thousand dollars, which Nancy LeaMond, AARP’s executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer, says is typically enough to give local projects the momentum they need to get going.
“The key here is how do we give enough money to do the first stage of a project that shows concrete results in a reasonable period of time,” LeaMond says. “People can look at it, and then maybe there’s leverage as you go to a broader project.”
The first few years of the program tended to feature a lot of mobility-related projects, like walking paths and benches, but the scope has since broadened. This year, winners focus on public space improvements, increasing affordable and accessible housing options, building community gardens, and broadening access to high-speed internet in rural communities.
Mike Watson, AARP’s director of livable communities, says these grants enable small community organizations, nonprofits, and even underfunded city governments to finally realize long-desired projects designed for older residents.
“It’s one thing to talk about the needs for older adults and talk about inclusive design, it’s another thing to actually demonstrate it,” Watson says, noting that grant projects “show what a crosswalk can look like for somebody to get across if they are mobility impaired, or what a new type of housing unit, whether that be an accessory dwelling unit or a tiny home, can look like if it’s designed to be inclusive for the needs of older adults and people of all ability.”
The need for these projects is great, according to LeaMond, who says that by 2034 there will be more people in the U.S. who are older than 65 than those who are younger than 18.
“The future is older Americans and communities. There are very few places that are not aging,” LeaMond says. “And research shows that two-thirds of adults want to stay in their communities, preferably in their homes, as they age. So this isn’t just an issue for Florida, Arizona, and other warming places. This is an issue for everywhere.”
But that doesn’t mean the grant projects are solely focused on older adults. LeaMond says that a public space improvement aimed at enhancing the lives of older people will likely be just as impactful for a parent with a stroller or someone carrying an armful of groceries. “We are very focused on communities of all ages. This isn’t just about supporting the senior center,” she says.
This year, 15% of the grants have a specific diversity, equity, and inclusion focus. About 80% address disparities of one sort or another. One example is a grant given to a group in Franklin County, Ohio, which will help its community of Bhutanese refugees access libraries, parks, and public transportation. Another project in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, is building 11 informational kiosks to explain the role of Indigenous people in the development of the region.
Watson says the hope is that the grant money leads to broader impact. He points to one success story in Richardson, Texas, where a $10,000 grant was used to make a temporary bike lane. The project’s quick implementation (it was partly painted by AARP members) led to the city receiving a $100,000 grant from another organization to make the bike lane permanent. “It also influenced longer-term capital budgeting that the city was doing,” Watson says.
By issuing grants to organizations that are already active in these communities, Watson says the funds help push forward projects that the community wants, giving them a better chance of being used. And once the projects get started, he says, they are much more likely to generate the support and funding needed to grow. “Our goal,” he says, “is to jump-start change.”