Greater Des Moines is already No. 1 on a lot of lists; it’s considered the best city in which to do business, the best city for young professionals and the strongest local economy, to name a few top rankings. 

So why not make it the No. 1 age-friendly city? That’s the question that Kent Sovern, Iowa state director for AARP, is asking. It’s the basis of an initiative that Sovern and his organization are leading to make the region a good place for older residents to continue to work and live.

Why is this important?

For one thing, there are a lot of people over the age of 65 in Polk County. At 46,545 people, as of the last census, Polk County has the highest 65-plus population of any county in the state, and by 2030, Iowa is expected to have twice as many people over the age of 65 as it has today. The retirement-age population is growing.

From a business standpoint, Sovern points out that the 50-year-old and 60-year-old-plus populations have the most disposable income. Your business has an opportunity to tap into that.

And from a workforce development standpoint, 61.5 percent of baby boomers, or people between the ages of 50 and 68, are still in Iowa’s workforce. That’s the seventh-highest percentage in the nation. 

“As an employer, they want to be known as a great place for older workers, that respects the value of older workers and invests in their older workers,” Sovern said. “As an employer, they want to be interested in this because they will tell you at the very beginning, the human resources they have, the human capital, is their greatest asset. We hope this effort will elevate the importance of respecting and including older workers.”

The plan also focuses on infrastructure needs such as analyzing how easy it is to get from someone’s home to the grocery store or a health care facility, and general quality-of-life measures, such as making sure retail stores are inclusive by nature to older residents, and making sure that people have ample opportunity to participate in activities such as walking groups to keep their health strong.

And though the plan is geared toward people over the age of 50, plan leaders specifically focus their marketing efforts on making Greater Des Moines a great place for people of all ages. After all, Sovern points out, improvements for baby boomers have the effect of improving the area for everyone.

“Our overall thing is livable communities,” Sovern said.

By the Numbers:

46,545 - Residents in Polk County that are age 65-plus. That’s the most in any Iowa county.

2030 - The year Iowa will have twice as many people over the age of 65 as it does now.

61.5% - Percent of Iowa’s baby boomers that are still working. That’s seventh-highest in the nation.

Elements of AARP’s plan

The plan is divided into four working groups: 

Infrastructure: Focuses on mapping where people over the age of 65 are living and what kind of access they have to places such as health clinics. Also analyzes ways to make neighborhoods more walkable. 

Social capital: Focuses on talking to neighborhood groups about how they can integrate age-friendly concepts into their neighborhoods, and working with businesses to evaluate their levels of age-friendliness.

Health: Focuses on how to encourage people to be more active. 

Communications: Focuses on finding a way to integrate recommendations to business leaders through initiatives such as Capital Crossroads and The Tomorrow Plan.

How did Des Moines get involved?

In late 2012, Kent Sovern, Iowa state director for AARP, Joel Olah, executive director of Aging Resources of Iowa, and Yogesh Shah, associate dean of global health at Des Moines University, saw an opportunity for Des Moines to be included in the World Health Organization’s network of age-friendly cities. 

They went to the Des Moines City Council and encouraged the council to apply to be part of the network. 

Des Moines was accepted as the third city in the network, behind Portland, Ore., and New York City.

Sovern said this is a perfect time for Des Moines to take these steps, as the initiative coincides with the planning already happening with Capital Crossroads, The Tomorrow Plan, and the DART Forward 2035 plan. 

“We said, ‘Hey, let’s take this age-friendly part of it and integrate it into what you are already doing,’” Sovern said.