A coalition of organizations in government, education, philanthropy, social services and economic development is working on a five-year project to make Athens County a better place for an aging population.

Age-Friendly Athens County is following a plan developed by AARP for its Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. Athens County is one of five counties in Ohio that belong to the network and the only one outside of a major metropolitan area. Nine municipalities statewide are network members, including Oxford and Yellow Springs.

“Age-friendly communities include access, comfort and connectivity,” said Rebeca Robison-Miller, the project’s manager.

The organization has more than 100 partners, including HAPCAP, OhioHealth, Athens City-County Health Department, Buckeye Hills Regional Council, Athens County Public Libraries and multiple divisions of Ohio University. Funding for the project comes from the Athens County Commissioners’ allocation of monies from the county’s senior services levy, as well as the state AARP.

Other support is in-kind; for example, Robison-Miller is coordinating the project as part of her job as senior director of community relations for OU’s College of Health Sciences and Professions.

Members of the executive committee and the nine subcommittees are all volunteers.

AARP’s plan — based on recommendations of the World Health Organization — divides livability into eight domains: housing, transportation, social participation, communication and information, civic participation and employment, outdoor spaces and buildings, respect and social inclusion, and health services and community supports. Age-Friendly Athens County group added a ninth domain, sustainability.

While the focus is on senior citizens, an age-friendly community benefits all residents. “If we make the community accessible for older adults, then it will be accessible to everyone,” she said.

A survey, launched in June, seeks residents’ thoughts on existing and potential services, amenities and infrastructure. “More than anything, we need input,” Robison-Miller said. “We want people of all ages who want to stay here to complete it. It’s not tailored to any age bracket.”

With nine domains to assess, the survey is lengthy. “It takes about 35 to 40 minutes, which is insanely long for a survey,” Robison-Miller admitted. People answering the online survey can pause it and come back later to finish. (I completed the online survey in a little over 30 minutes.)

Those without internet access can pick up paper copies at public libraries, social service agencies and other sites. Paper copies also were mailed to a random sample of county residents in early October.

Responses will be evaluated to ensure that the organization hears from all corners of the county. “If we don’t have a good response from all ZIP codes in the county, we will do some targeted mail recruitment,” she said.

In years three and four, the project will work to address needs identified in the surveys and other community feedback forums, Robison-Miller said. Those remedies must accommodate the county’s income inequalities and geographic spread.

“Take housing — there have to be many options available all economic situations,” she said. “Do people need transportation? What if the person doesn’t have phone or internet?”

By that time, though, Age-Friendly Athens County will probably have a full-time director who is not affiliated with Ohio University. Robison-Miller is careful to emphasize that her work is purely a community service by OU — and not permanent.

“The project will land in a community organization or be funded in one of our community partners,” Robison-Miller said.

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