We immediately recognized the value the Age-Friendly Cities program could bring to the quality of life for residents of the greater Des Moines area, as well as the opportunities for AARP members to contribute to the process.

This question launched AARP Iowa’s outreach phase of involvement with the City of Des Moines World Health Organization (WHO) Age-Friendly Cities program.


With projections indicating substantial migration of Iowa’s rapidly growing 60+ population from rural centers to the state’s commercial center over the next few years, the Des Moines metro area is preparing to meet the physical and social infrastructure demands of this demographic. By some estimates, more than a third of the Des Moines population will be 65+ in within 20 years.


In August 2011, Dr. Yogesh Shah, associate dean of global health at Des Moines University, and Dr. Joel Olah, executive director of Aging Resources of Central Iowa, met with AARP Iowa to outline the Age-Friendly Cities program and ask AARP to become a key partner and member of the leadership team. AARP agreed to join the effort, and the City of Des Moines applied for and was accepted into WHO’s network of Age-Friendly Cities (AFC) in October.


We immediately recognized the value the Age-Friendly Cities program could bring to the quality of life for residents of the greater Des Moines area, as well as the opportunities for AARP members to contribute to the process.


One of the first activities of the leadership team was to build broad community support for the effort by developing a high-level strategic advisory committee. Chaired by Dr. Shah and Dr. Olah, the 13-member committee includes AARP and the leading civic, business, government, and service provider groups in the region.


Next, AARP began introducing the age-friendly concept and gathering citizen feedback on what the community needs to do to be more age friendly. While the WHO template details eight areas of focus for age-friendly cities, AARP and the leadership team decided to organize the Des Moines project into three broad work groups—Infrastructure, Social Capital, and Health Services. Each of the work groups is co-chaired by an AARP lead volunteer and a community volunteer with significant content knowledge that embraces the scope of the work group assignment.


Our goal is that by creating the three work groups with comprehensive focus, we can more efficiently manage analysis of existing conditions in the greater Des Moines area to compare to the WHO-AFC criteria.


The Infrastructure work group will address the focus areas of Outdoor Spaces and Buildings, Transportation, and Housing.


The Social Capital work group includes the focus area of Participation, Respect and Inclusion, and Civic Participation and Employment.

The Health Services work group includes the areas of Communication and Information, Community Support, and Health Services.


To gain baseline community response to the age-friendly concept, a second major effort of 2011 involved a series of organized neighborhood “meet-ups” for AARP member engagement in each of the four wards of the city. The meet-ups were designed to introduce the participants to the AFC project, gather feedback on the areas of priority, and recruit volunteers interested in engaging on the project. To gauge viability of the project and facilitate instant audience feedback and discussion, AARP used Meridia response technology to record participant reactions to some of the criteria in each of the three work group areas.


The meet-up sessions and format worked extremely well to help accomplish our early project objectives.We learned AARP members embrace the project design and they welcome the opportunity to have their voices heard and to participate in the work groups.


In early December, AARP reported findings from the meet-ups to the advisory committee and outlined an engagement strategy for 2012 to extend the outreach to neighborhood associations and integrate the project with other key strategic planning efforts.


With 58 neighborhood associations, the Age-Friendly Cities leadership team recognized that a successful AFC project will demand the participation of neighborhood leaders and integration of their plans and recommendations into the AFC template. During the first quarter of 2012, AARP staff provided orientation sessions for the neighborhood leaders and is providing engagement sessions at their regular meetings.


In addition, 2012 efforts include integrating the AFC project with three key regional strategic planning efforts underway in central Iowa: the Capital Crossroads: A Vision for Greater Des Moines,a five-year strategic plan comprised of strategic elements for community development; The Tomorrow Plan, a regional effort focused on sustainable development; and DART Forward 2035, a blueprint for redesigning the entire transit system for greater Des Moines.


AARP’s efforts will embrace the regional planning activities of these organizations to accomplish three outcomes: to provide a pathway for including appropriate AFC recommendations in the other organizations’ reports; to leverage the resources of the other organizations to help accomplish the data collection, surveys, and analysis that the AFC project will require; and to prepare for the extension of the project from the city of Des Moines to the greater Des Moines region.


Throughout 2012, AARP’s AFC plan includes engaging planning professionals and officials from all affected political jurisdictions in the project as the three work groups collect, assess, and analyze data. Household surveys will be administered and second and third rounds of neighborhood meet-ups will be scheduled to test the work groups’ preliminary findings.


We’re excited to be the first Midwestern city to undertake this ambitious multiyear effort to be certified age friendly. It’s a natural fit for AARP to play a leadership role and we’re looking forward to engaging our volunteers and members in a process of continuous improvement to meet the project’s goals, objectives, strategies and tactics.

Kent Sovern

In July 2011, Kent Sovern was named as the AARP state director in Iowa. Kent brings more than 30 years of professional experience in Association management, public policy and education to AARP. Most recently, Kent was President of the New Iowa Group and Executive Director of the Iowa Parks Foundation.  Kent also served as the Executive Director of the Des Moines Higher Education Collaborative, Senior Vice President of Government and International Relations at the Greater Des Moines Partnership and Director of Public Policy for the League of Iowa Municipalities. 



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