Recipes for successful age-friendly communities

By Keryn Curtis

The big opportunity for innovation and change toward building more multigenerational liveable communities resides at the local government level with an embedded partnership approach, according to a veteran of the age friendly cities and communities concept.

Paul McGarry, the senior strategy manager, public health, for the City of Manchester in the UK, told an assembly of Australian local government representatives, academics and policy makers that the key to creating successful age friendly communities lay in a ‘citizenship’ approach applied locally, using existing resources and building capacity.

Speaking at the inaugural Age Friendly Cities and Communities Conference, hosted by the ACT Government on Wednesday, Mr McGarry discussed the challenges and learnings of the City of Manchester since it became one of the original signatories to the WHO age friendly cities and communities network in 2006 .

After fifteen years, Mr McGarry said he had learned that national government policy support was not essential in achieving flourishing age friendly communities and that it often wasn’t a case of needing more money; rather ‘recasting and redesigning the ageing agenda’.

“The history of ageing policy in the UK has been patchy. In the late 90s [with the Blair government] there was a huge sense of opportunity around with lots of programs and policies, like the Better Government for Older People initiative. 

“There were lots of programs and policies one after another, lasting a few years then folding and being replaced,” said Mr McGarry, “What they didn’t do was to create a counter narrative or infrastructure or a true national program around ageing that wasn’t rooted in social care.

“Then when austerity started to bite, a lot of those programs, that were seen as add-ons, started being cut and not replaced.” 

Mr McGarry said a large part of the problem was that ageing policy had usually been framed in terms of  ‘the medical narrative’ or the ‘social care narrative’ and it was essential to redefine the narrative around ageing away from the dominant views of deficit and dependency and recast it around the notion of citizenship and rights.

“In the medical narrative, it’s about the patient and the focus is on the individual and clinical interventions.

“In the social care world, older people are now called ‘customers’ in this system with the focus on the individual, the family and informal networks.

“Now, when we start to think of people as social actors and citizens then suddenly you to start open up a whole new set of possibilities.  Older people have rights and they have rights to the city.  It’s about social justice as much as anything. It becomes an equality issue,” he said.

A model for success

Mr McGarry said there were some core principles which had emerged as success factors in achieving outcomes for older people as part of age friendly cities initiative.

“It’s got to be an alliance of the local community, policy makers, researchers and politicians, predominantly at the local or state government level, rather than central government,” said Mr McGarry, “and it must be grounded in a citizenship model around ageing.”

“Political leadership and consistent support is key.  We have had the same people in charge in Manchester for long time and that has created stability that has enabled planning.

“And we have had great support from councilors, importantly including those not directly responsible for social care.”

Mr McGarry said the other important element was to work with and build upon the wealth of existing resources in the local community.

“There is a huge amount of knowledge and experience around, across the ageing agenda, in many different organisations.  So what we set out to do in Manchester was three things.

“One, to develop capacity in the community and government departments so there are people who understand what they are doing in local communities and who can make it happen.

“Two, to bring in expertise. Bring in the academics at local and international universities to question what we do.

“And then have a partnership strategy. Get everyone around the table from digital and design; the housing people; community groups; business; older people and ensure the academics are at the backbone really pressing and pushing.  And get some branding for it.

“You need a local narrative that local residents understand," he said. "You have to  articulate what ageing could be like and what it is at the moment and show that it that is isn’t just about a deficit model around illness and social care.

“It’s about research, policy and practice and having multiple stakeholders,” he said.

Australian Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities

A meeting was held on Thursday 10 October at the ACT Legislative Assembly Building to discuss the formation of an Australian Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities, similar to the UK Network of which City of Manchester is a member. For more information, email

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