By Sanford Sorkin

Montclair patted itself on the back after being designated an Age-Friendly Community by AARP and the World Health Organization. Montclair received the designation in February 2015, and shares the honorific with Princeton, as the only two designated towns in New Jersey. Discussions around the designation seemed to use age-friendly interchangeably with senior-friendly which is probably what they actually mean.

A little research into the designation/enrollment process offers insights into a rather comprehensive program to improve the lives of seniors. It in no way indicates that the community is currently “friendly,” but rather that the town acknowledges that it wants to be friendly, and is aware of the need for initiatives to move in that direction. Acknowledgment is the basic criterion and is probably the most important preparatory step, however nothing beyond noting the need for change is required. We haven’t necessarily done anything, but we’ve documented that we should, therefore “we are friendly” can be the mantra.

“The AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities is an affiliate of the World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly Cities and Communities Program, an international effort launched in 2006 to help cities prepare for rapid population aging and the parallel trend of urbanization. The program has participating communities in more than 20 nations, as well as 10 affiliates representing more than 1,000 communities.”

— AARP website

I think it is very important that we are clear about defining “friendly” and then add specificity to the term to apply it to Montclair. My contention is that Montclair has a long road to becoming senior-friendly. Seniors are definitely not flocking to town, and the seemingly inevitable annual property tax increases communicate a “get out of town” message to seniors who may no longer be working and rely on pensions and savings.

There is a certain amount of irony here. Property taxes continue to go up and our township council tells us that the school system is responsible for the increases even though they have three of the five votes on the Board of School Estimate. The message is don’t blame the municipal government, talk to the schools. But tax-paying seniors support the schools without any added burden to the schools. The simple reality is that the cost of remaining in Montclair keeps going up regardless of the reason.

An expectation of reasonable and stable taxes gives us a small insight to an element of the senior-friendly definition. Part of the definition surely relates to finances, and just as importantly, it must address the general needs of seniors such as social activities and transportation.

The definition of senior-friendly I would like to adopt is fairly straightforward:

A senior-friendly town attracts seniors to live in the community, and senior residents of the community view the town as a desirable and affordable place to continue to reside.

Today, we hear too many residents indicate that they will leave as soon as their children graduate from high school. When Montclair loses the senior residents there is the likelihood they will sell to a family with children who will attend our schools. Unless we make some changes, such as becoming truly senior-friendly, we will find ourselves in an unsustainable downward spiral.

Maybe my notion of senior-friendly is incorrect, and it simply means that we are a town that welcomes seniors when they visit to eat and shop. Montclair has budgeted for a senior center, and will probably develop a very responsive transportation system in the near future. There is even the likelihood that the new transportation service will address the important first and last mile. We already know that very few seniors, or anyone for that matter, want to carry groceries home from a bus stop, or negotiate the stretch from a bus stop to a doctor’s office. The question remains, are centers and transportation enough? Will it be enough for seniors to not want or be forced to leave, or should we strive to create a community that inspires seniors to move or remain here?

We seem to have a Band-Aid culture. Seniors want a center — we fund a center. Seniors want transportation — we buy a bus and also outsource the service. The larger picture is left largely unaddressed. For a moment we might forget what they want and look at what they need. I believe that affordable housing and affordable property taxes along with reliable transportation operating from morning until evening will be near the top of the list.