An age-friendly vision for America’s capital city: in conversation with Gail Kohn

Published On: June 16th, 2021By Categories: Blog, Washington, D.C.

Gail Kohn was the latest guest on the “Elevate Eldercare” podcast, in conversation with Senior Director Susan Ryan. A powerhouse leader, particularly in pushing for diversity and community, she is the former executive director of Capitol Hill Village and Collington. Now, she leads the Age-Friendly DC initiative, as part of a World Health Organization project to establish a network of cities dedicated to better aging all over the world.

Simple fixes for a more inclusive city

As Kohn describes, the story behind age-friendly cities is an interesting one, involving the popularity of Rio de Janeiro’s Ipanema neighborhood skyrocketing as a residential area for elders after the real-life “Girl from Ipanema” relocated to a high rise there. Dr. Alexandre Kalache noticed that Ipanema was creating a lot of difficulties, particularly for its aging population, and identified several small but impactful fixes the city could make. For one, he noticed that buses would often pass by stops when elders were waiting there, knowing that it would take a while for them to get on the bus. The bus system at the time was touted for being incredibly punctual, leaving bus drivers no leeway to wait for slower customers. So he pushed for a restructuring of the system that put an emphasis on the number of customers a bus could attract – not the exactness of the time in which it arrived and departed. This quick fix made the city far more accessible to elders.

I was struck by the simplicity of this solution, because it raises the question of what other quick, easy, and effective solutions to people’s problems we’re missing simply because we take our circumstances for granted. As someone who is perpetually running late, I would depend heavily on the punctuality of the Ipanema bus system. I’d likely never consider that the very same system may be rendering the city inaccessible to people who can’t get on the bus fast enough. There is incredible power in empathetic leadership – and significant results that can be obtained just by working to better understand the concerns of others.

Age-friendly DC

Kohn then transitioned to talking about her experience leading the Age-Friendly DC initiative, which comes up on its 10-year mark in 2023. As she describes, the initiative is positioned on top of three main pillars – the built environment, changing attitudes about growing older, and lifelong health and security. It was remarkable to hear about how the built environment was approached. One example that Kohn gave was of a block-by-block walk taken by politicians, students, and community members alike. The walk allowed them to identify possible hazards – such as unclear intersections, potholes, and cracks in the sidewalk – that were promptly fixed.

As Kohn mentioned, 95% of surveyed elders want to live and grow old at home, but for many people, that is not a reality. Considering the rapid demographic shift that not only the U.S but the world is going to experience in the next few decades, rethinking how our cities cater to the elderly is not just a unique, interesting pursuit but incredibly crucial to the quality of life for everyone, young and old.

On discrimination and diversity

There was comment of Kohn’s, attributed to Susan Donnelly of LeadingAge, that particularly stuck with me:We’re discriminating against our older selves when we dislike older people.

This is why I think Age-Friendly DC, and the network of cities under the WHO, is so powerful. Fixing cracks or potholes in a sidewalk helps those of us that are already nearing older age, but those changes will still be around as the rest of us grow older and require more thoughtful design of our communities. Moreover, potholes and cracks don’t just pose a problem to elders – fixing them would help young parents pushing strollers, or people riding a skateboard.

One of my favorite quotes, from Paul Hunt in A Critical Condition, says “The quality of the relationship the community has with its least fortunate members is a measure of its own health.” As a leader, I think Kohn embodies this sentiment remarkably. Whether it was pushing for diversity and neighbor-to-neighbor relationships with Capitol Hill Village, Collington or now Age-Friendly DC, Kohn proves that as a society, we can be committed to lifting everyone up – we just need leaders courageous enough to push for it.