In D.C., Hayek discusses aging

BY BEN MARKS | JULY 14, 2015 5:00 AM

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Iowa City is best known as a college town, an educational and social haven for thousands of young people. For many others, it’s a haven for an aging population as well.

On Monday, Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek traveled to Washington, D.C., for the 2015 White House Conference on Aging, at which he spoke on a panel discussing healthy aging and intergenerational connections.

The conference has been held every 10 years since the 1960s and brings together leaders, researchers, and experts in the field of aging to discuss current issues. It also included a speech by President Obama on aging in America.

“We have to work to do more to insure that every older American has the resources and the support they need to survive,” Obama said.

He noted the challenges of an aging baby-boomer population, the challenges Medicaid and Medicare face, both of which turned 50 this year, as well as the increased health and activity a longer lifespan brings older Americans.

“Arguably, the toughest justice on the Supreme Court is the oldest, Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” he said, to the audience’s laugher. “Also known as the Notorious RBG. She’s tough.”

After Obama’s speech, the conference continued with four more panels on topics from technology and aging to elder abuse and justice.

The panel Hayek participated in included WebMD Chief Medical Editor Michael Smith as the moderator; Diana Nyad, who swam from Cuba to Florida at the age of 63; U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy; YMCA President Kevin Washington; and Fernando Torres-Gil, director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging.

Iowa City administrative analysist Simon Andrew said Hayek was invited because of the work Iowa City has done to promote healthy aging.

Last fall, the Milken Institute, an independent economic think tank, published a report called Best Cities for Successful Aging.

In the report, Iowa City ranked No. 1 in the country in the best-small-metro category.

According to the study, the biggest features that make Iowa City attractive to the elderly is its low cost and expansive health-care system, low unemployment and strong economy, and the University of Iowa, which is an attractive option for older citizens pursuing a second career.

“Environments that are attractive to seniors and conducive to successful aging in place don’t necessarily occur naturally,” Hayek said during the conference. “I think they occur as the result of a lot of work on the part of local governments, and nonprofits, and the private sector, and those are things that have to be created, and you have to have strong networks.”

Aging in place refers to when individuals remain active, independent, and in their homes instead of living in a care facility.

“Our goal is to make our city welcoming to seniors,” Hayek said. “We want to reduce isolation, and we want seniors to have a purposeful existence, and they have a huge role in our community, and we’d like to champion that.”

Hayek said Iowa City has done many simple things to help the population age in place, such as density bonuses that encourage more housing, mixed-use development, which allows people to live closer to needed services such as grocery stores, and requiring new construction to include door frames that in 10 or 15 years can be widened with minimal effort to accommodate wheelchairs or walkers.

“None of these things are by themselves home runs, and I don’t think local governments are in a position to hit home runs on this type of issue,” Hayek said. “I think you can hit a lot of singles, though, and that’s how we get there. Every little thing counts.”

Smith agreed with Hayek and said his comments hit on a critical point.

“I can say this as a doctor, but doctors are not the answer,” Smith said. “Really, communities are the answer here because you live and breathe this every day, and you’re helping these people at a level that is so critical to help us get to where we need to be.”

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