Michigan Age-Friendly Action Plan aims to make it easier for adults to age in place

Michigan's Age-Friendly Action Plan has established a blueprint that's helping Michiganders ages 50 and older remain connected, feel respected, and live more independently within their communities.
This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

Approved by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in June 2022, Michigan's Age-Friendly Action Plan has established a blueprint that's helping Michiganders ages 50 and older remain connected, feel respected, and live more independently within their communities.

AARP-Michigan and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Behavioral and Physical Health and Aging Services Administration submitted the comprehensive strategy after more than a year of collaboration. The plan lays a foundation for making Michigan more friendly to older adults through six areas of focus: Expanding information and awareness of services available to older adults and their caregivers; promoting social interaction, connectedness, and expanded access to technology and transportation; increasing virtual aging services; meeting older adults' transportation needs; increasing the number of direct care workers; and protecting older adults from elder abuse and exploitation – and making sure they make their own decisions about aging in place. Scott Wamsley, director of the MDHHS Bureau of Aging, Community Living, and Supports, says in many cases the plan is "really energizing" existing efforts towards accessibility and safety.

"This action plan recognizes the importance, as an aging state, of making sure our communities are age-friendly — how we can make our communities more livable for older adults, make sure that older adults are served well in their communities, and make sure that communities benefit from an aging population," Wamsley says.

By the numbers

Michigan is one of the fastest-aging states in the nation. Currently, Michigan's residents 60 and older make up roughly a quarter of the state's population. By 2030, Michigan will have more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 18. Wamsley notes that 18% of the state's population is already 65 or older, and the state is "aging differently in different areas."

"We have counties in northern lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula where they have 30% or more of their county populations at age 65-plus," he says.

AARP named Michigan an AARP Age-Friendly State in October 2019 — the first state in the Midwest to receive that designation. Eight Michigan municipalities – Auburn Hills, East Lansing, Grand Rapids, Jackson, Lansing, Novi, Royal Oak, and Southfield — have joined AARP's Age-Friendly community network, and more are in the planning stages. Age-friendly designation recognizes a state’s or community’s commitment to implementing the types of changes that make communities more livable for people of all ages, especially older adults. Acccording to AARP, age-friendly policies and programs “make neighborhoods walkable, feature transportation options, enable access to key services, provide opportunities to participate in community activities, and support housing that’s affordable and adaptable.”
Grand Rapids Assistant Planning Director Jay Steffen describes these new benches in Grand Rapids' Creston neighborhood as a "direct result" of Michigan's Age-Friendly Action Plan.
An aging population has specific needs, especially when nearly 90% of older adults express a desire to live out their lives in their own homes. These older adults may need services in the home such as health care or help with activities of daily living, housework, and home maintenance. They may need transportation as some lose their ability to drive.

"If you have younger family members that move away for employment or other reasons, the need to have help in the home may increase because you don't have that informal support. And if you look at the 85-and-older group, some of those needs intensify," Wamsley says. "Another area where you see a need for services is to support those caregivers who are providing care for their loved ones in the home."

Nutrition services are also in need. Meals served in congregate settings in the community can help older adults maintain healthy social connections. For the homebound, programs like Meals on Wheels can help older adults who can't shop for groceries or prepare meals for themselves.

"These are some of the longest-running programs for older adults in Michigan. They were largely a creation of the Older Americans Act [passed in 1965]," Wamsley says. "As the population is aging, we've seen more and more of a shift to the home-delivered meals programs. That suggests another area of need that we see — making sure that we're meeting that socialization that older adults need."

AARP-Michigan age-friendly "army" enlists communities across the state

The Michigan Age-Friendly Action Plan is the culmination of AARP-Michigan's many years of policy and advocacy work at the state capitol.  

"We've gotten really good at bird-dogging," says AARP Michigan Director Paula Cunningham. "When candidates are running for office, we go after them. We ask them, 'What's your stance on Michigan becoming an age-friendly state?' 'What's your stance on Social Security?' 'What's your stance on Medicare and home- or community-based services?' Then, we hold them accountable to the answers they gave."

Cunningham notes that the Michigan Age-Friendly Action Plan will not only bring greater quality of life to the state's older adults but will also have positive economic impacts for communities. When the community provides supports that allow people to age in their own homes, those people continue to spend at local businesses and pay taxes.

"We are constantly telling folks to make certain that older adults stay in your community and age in your community. It's an economic driver for the community," Cunningham says. "And for every dollar [the state] allocates to a long-term care facility, the state would be able to save $2 by having someone stay in their own home."

Grand Rapids adds age-friendly infrastructure

One of Michigan's first age-friendly communities is now taking its next steps to improve older adults' quality of life under the Age-Friendly Action Plan. In 2015, Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and Commissioner Ruth Kelly raised the idea of Grand Rapids becoming an Age-Friendly Community to Grand Rapids' city planner after attending an AARP conference. In 2016, the city collaborated with AARP to host a series of community meetings with stakeholders and listening sessions with older residents. Those residents shared that they wanted the city to focus on four of the World Health Organization's eight domains for age-friendly cities — communications, housing, outdoor spaces, and transportation.
Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and AARP Michigan Associate State Director Jennifer Feuerstein sit on one of the new benches in Creston.
"We have 29 action steps and we're doing quite well," says Jay Steffen, Grand Rapids' assistant planning director. "We have the philosophy that if we can make the city work well for older adults, then it will work well for residents of all ages."

Grand Rapids' parks are being revitalized with accessible parking, bathrooms, and walking trails with benches. As part of efforts to make neighborhoods more walkable, the city is snowplowing sidewalks on blocks known to have more older adults. In Grand Rapids' Creston neighborhood, a project conceived by the North End Wellness Coalition installed seven benches along the North Quarter Pathways urban walking trail.

“The Creston benches and walking program is a direct result of the ongoing Age-Friendly Action Plan. This was a collaboration among many partners and has grown in popularity since [it was] launched in 2021,” Steffen says via email. “It is a wonderful way to get older adults (and others) involved in a healthy activity and results in a higher quality for all.”  

New approval procedures for accessory dwelling units, also known as granny flats, are making it easier for folks to accommodate aging family members.

"Our housing policies seek to allow for safe, affordable housing with a broader range of choice for older adults as well for others," Steffen says.

Additional Downtown Area Shuttle (DASH) bus routes have increased transportation options for older adults. And to make it easier for older adults to access information, the city will soon add a map of age-friendly services and spaces to its age-friendly web page. Steffen stresses that the city's efforts are truly a collaboration among many Grand Rapids organizations, including the United Way 211 program, the Area Agency on Aging of West Michigan, Senior Neighbors, AARP, the Council on Aging of Kent County, the North End Wellness Coalition, the Caregiver Resource Network, neighborhood associations, and senior centers. 

"The list just goes on and on," Steffen says.
A DASH bus in Grand Rapids.
To help implement the Age-Friendly Action Plan's goals in other communities throughout the state, AARP-Michigan will host train-the-trainer events where participants spend a day in mentorship with representatives of communities that have already earned age-friendly designation.

"It's not just about what happens in the state capitol. It's also about the communities, communities like Grand Rapids that wanted Michigan to become an age-friendly state because they'd already been briefed on what that means," Cunningham says. "We had a small army across the entire state who was supportive. And that's how we got [the Age-Friendly Action Plan] across the finish line."

Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children's books. You can contact her at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com or www.constellations.biz.

DASH bus photo and Rosalynn Bliss photo courtesy of the city of Grand Rapids. All other photos by Bud Kibby, Bird + Bird Studio.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.