Ohio State University: Age-Friendly Innovation Center director excited by work with and for older adults

In 2016, Columbus was one of 64 cities around the country that joined the World Health Organization and AARP International Network of Age-Friendly Communities. Since then, Age-Friendly Columbus and Franklin County has evolved, transitioning to The Ohio State University’s College of Social Work in 2018 and becoming the Age-Friendly Innovation Center (AFIC) in 2021.

AFIC’s mission is to innovate with older adults through research, education and engagement to ensure inclusion and build resiliency to make communities more age-friendly.

Ohio State’s role as a research institution means that AFIC has the opportunity to work with highly skilled researchers, said Marisa Sheldon, who was named the center’s director earlier this year.

“I think one of the areas for growth within the age-friendly framework is that there’s not a lot of evidence around what folks are doing and how to best do this work,” Sheldon said. “Transitioning to a center really gave us the ability to start building on that evidence in a deeper way.”

A social worker by trade, Sheldon finds data to be immensely helpful in her new role.

“We recently released our new findings from the 2021 Central Ohio Regional Assessment on Aging through an interactive data dashboard. As a center, we decided we wanted to do a regional assessment instead of just looking at our county,” she said. “I’m really excited to dig into that data and see where that leads us.”

Often, work done on behalf of the older adults is done without their input, she said. AFIC relies heavily on feedback from older community members.

“We see our residents as the experience experts,” she said. “They get to tell us about what would work better and how we can improve things. We rely on them to share that with us.”

This input has been critical to AFIC’s work. In the next 30 years, central Ohio’s aging population is expected to double. In its initial stages, AFIC identified eight focus areas for the community: communication and information; community support and health services; employment and civic participation; housing; outdoor spaces and buildings; safety and emergency preparedness; social participation, respect and inclusion; and transportation. This final focus area is not an immediately obvious one, Sheldon said, but may be the most crucial.

“I think one of the reasons that we’ve focused so much on transportation is that it impacts nearly every part of an older adult’s life and really can make or break the ability to age where you want to age,” Sheldon said, adding that inadequate transportation can be a barrier to everything from participating in one’s community and seeing family to having food and going to medical appointments.

AFIC has built partnerships with the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) to encourage ridership amongst aging residents and developed a program that helps older adults use rideshare apps like Lyft. But this transportation focus also refers to things like walk audits, where obstacles in pedestrian walkways are identified and eventually corrected.

“Often what makes a community better for an older adult makes things better for all of us,” Sheldon said. “Good sidewalks make my life easier, too.”

There can be challenges to building change targeted at older adults, she said, despite the benefits to the community as a whole. This can be caused by ageism, which affects the old and the young.

“Research shows that internalized ageism can take years off your life, upwards of seven years,” Sheldon adds. “We’ve done a lot of work to promote positive aging. There have been billboards around town with local older adults to show how strong and wonderful it is to grow old. We want to push back on the narrative that aging is a bad thing. We should all be so lucky to age and do it in a good way.”

AFIC has worked with Metro Early College Middle School students through a course called Change AGEnts. In one section of the course, students found examples of positive and negative portrayals of aging in print media. It is much easier to find negative ones, Sheldon said, and these examples lead to unfavorable impressions of aging and older community members.

“We need more stories to show our community that it is great to grow old.”