How is Fort Wayne becoming more livable for all ages? Meet the Mayor’s Age-Friendly Council

Since the dawn of viral internet lists and memes, there’s been public contention between people of different generations.

Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z can each be typified based on personality stereotypes, political views, or fashion trends.

But as the nation's largest nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization empowering Americans age 50 and older, AARP has found that people of different generations actually have more in common than they might think—particularly when it comes to community development.
Portrait of the members of the Mayor's Age-Friendly Council (minus a few who were not present) at Citizen's Square.
Linda Dunno, President of AARP Indiana, says most of the time, it's enlightening for people of different generations to learn that they have similar issues and interests when it comes to their built environment and lifestyles, though sometimes, for different reasons. For instance, more affordable, “tiny houses” appeal to seniors wishing to age in place and budget-strapped millennial homebuyers alike, so increasing access to these assets supports multiple demographics.

“Anytime you can improve something in a community, it helps everybody,” Dunno says.

As part of its effort to help seniors age in place, AARP has classified a few common environmental factors of wellness as the 8 domains of livability. These include housing, transportation, outdoor spaces and buildings, communication and information, civic participation and employment, respect and social inclusion, health services and community support, and social participation. The framework aims to guide cities and states across the country enrolled in AARP Network’s of Age-Friendly States and Communities, so they can become more livable for both older residents, and by extension, people of many demographics and abilities. 
Becky Weimerskirch, left, speaks during a council meeting with members of the Mayor's Age-Friendly Council at Citizen's Square.
In Fort Wayne, about 14 percent of the population is 65 and older (on par with a national average of 16 percent)—a number expected to increase in coming years as Baby Boomers age. As such, Fort Wayne became one of three Indiana cities to join the Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities in 2019, when Mayor Henry signed the letter of commitment to enroll, creating the Mayor’s Age-Friendly Council.

Dunno says the framework for these councils is flexible, and each council looks a little different. What works for a city in Texas might not work in Fort Wayne. Overall, the council is designed to give older citizens a chance to be hands-on and have a voice on critical matters of livability within their community through local government and organizations. She helped bring the Age-Friendly Council in Fort Wayne together by organizing with the Mayor’s office and AARP, while recruiting potential council members. 

Denise Porter speaks during a council meeting with members of the Mayor's Age-Friendly Council at Citizen's Square,
Tim Brown is one such Age-Friendly Council member recruited by Dunno in Fort Wayne. Originally from New York, Brown lived in Chicago, IL; Pittsburgh, PA; and Providence, RI, before moving to the Summit City. He was asked to come to Fort Wayne for work in 2017, and he says he fell in love with the community here. 

He met Dunno in 2019, at the Open Streets Festival, celebrating more walkable and bikeable city infrastructure, where the two chatted at the AARP information table. 

When a spot opened on the council, Dunno asked Brown if he’d join and oversee the Outdoor Spaces/Buildings domain of livability. Now, he’s also serving as the Council Chair.

Tim Brown speaks during a council meeting with members of the Mayor's Age-Friendly Council at Citizen's Square.
“I believe there are a lot of great things happening in our city right now,” says Brown. “The question for all of us is: How do we keep the momentum going and help all in our community get to a place of thriving and flourishing? This takes time, and we must realize that great things are building. All of us on the Council are here to serve and help in areas we see as important for better living conditions for all in Fort Wayne. I believe community involvement is critical to help with positive growth.”

Currently, Fort Wayne’s Age-Friendly Council is preparing to make its action plan public and launch the implementation phase. Brown says the council has informed its plan with data collected by the Purdue Extension office in 2018, along with the members’ own anecdotal experience and knowledge of Fort Wayne. They’ve selected three priority domains to focus on first: transportation, housing, and health services/community supports.

Brown says communication and inclusion are two overarching themes woven into the council’s plans for addressing each of these areas, too. Communication, in particular, between citizens and leaders is something he’d like to see improve in Fort Wayne, starting with letting people know that the Council exists and what it’s intended to do.

Members of the Mayor's Age-Friendly Council work together during their meeting at Citizen's Square.
Echoing the mission of AARP to be an advocate and empower people, the Council's goals aren’t wholly focused on creating new things for Fort Wayne, but rather coming alongside pre-existing organizations and policies to promote awareness and usage of the available resources. 

“When we got to talking about resources, like 211 and 311, and I was like, ‘How do people know these resources exist?’” Brown says. “I didn't know about these things, but they're amazing. How do we help with that? That’s what we’re looking forward to.”

Along the way, AARP provides age-friendly councils and panels with support, tools, and connections. This includes a structured timeline to determine how they can impact their community from a period of research to planning, implementation, evaluation and reporting on progress. According to AARP’s website, Age-Friendly Programs are a continuous cycle, meaning once they’ve completed their five-year action plan goals, the process starts over again.

As Fort Wayne emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, Brown is excited to get his team’s initial plans out and let people know what council members are doing.

“We want to let people know that this is a group of really neat people who care and have been asked by the Mayor to do something in a city that we think is already seeing amazing things happening,” he says.

Members of the Mayor's Age-Friendly Council discuss issues during their meeting at Citizen's Square.
Meet the Council:
Tim Brown - Chair/Outdoor Spaces & Buildings
Becky Weimerskirch - Vice-Chair/Transportation
Denise Porter - Housing
Ana Etter - Social Participation
John Gardner - Respect & Social Inclusion
Sue Ehinger - Community & Health Services
Betsy Kachmar - Secretary/AARP Fort Wayne
Peggy Hayes - General/Community & Health Services
Maureen Ryan Widner - Communication and Information
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Read more articles by Brittany Smith.

Brittany Smith is Input Fort Wayne's Managing Editor. Previously she served as Assistant Editor and participated in the College Input Program. She also volunteers for Northeast Indiana Public Radio.