Member Spotlight: Dr. Frank Caro

Dr. Frank Caro is co-founder of the Brookline Community Aging Network, a volunteer-driven organization with a mission to make Brookline a better place to grow old.

What is the Brookline Community Aging Network?
The Brookline Community Aging Network (BrooklineCAN) is a collaboration among Brookline residents, the Brookline Council on Aging, and a cluster of nonprofit organizations that are all concerned with the well-being of older people in Brookline. It’s part of an international effort, sometimes described as the Village Movement, which represents activities at the community level to make conditions favorable for older people to continue living successfully in those communities. Within the Village movement, BrooklineCAN is distinctive in its effort to be inclusive of all who are interested (membership is a nominal $25 per year), its emphasis on services already provided by Brookline’s Senior Center, its attention to Brookline as a whole as a good place for older people to live, and its reliance on volunteers.

frank_pol (2)BrooklineCAN operates through a number of committees, which handle everything from informational programs to service referrals (plumbers, computer technicians, etc.) to advocacy. For volunteers to serve on its committees, BrooklineCAN draws upon the exceptional talents of the civic-minded retirees who live in the community. Volunteers are particularly attracted to BrooklineCAN’s efforts that benefit the entire community.

What are some of the things BrooklineCAN has done to make Brookline more age friendly?
We are paying particular attention to housing and pedestrian issues. For example, to inform older people about the availability of multi-family residential buildings in the community, we have produced an online guide to residential buildings with elevators, which is an excellent starting point for people who are thinking about making that move. We’re also looking at safe sidewalks, and set up a team of people who go out into commercial areas after snowstorms to monitor conditions and report those that are not in compliance. Safe sidewalks are particularly important for older people and people with disabilities, but are also helpful to people of all ages in the community.

BrooklineCAN’s Livable Community Advocacy Committee has also taken on a number of initiatives, one of which is joining the WHO international network of Age Friendly Cities. In fact, Brookline is the first municipality in New England to be designated as a World Health Organization (WHO) “Age Friendly City.”

Was the process of becoming a WHO Age Friendly City challenging?
What’s distinctive about an Age Friendly City is the commitment of municipalities to seek some changes in several areas of community life over a period of several years to make the community more livable. It is a commitment to become more livable rather than a recognition of accomplishment.

It was relatively easy for us to do it, because the Brookline Senior Center and Brookline Council on Aging have a very strong connection with Brookline’s Board of Selectmen. Through our advocacy work in BrooklineCAN, we have developed a good relationship with many of the town departments. We were also not asking the town to make a new commitment of financial resources, and offered volunteers to do the major part of the work, so it was really a pretty easy sell.

What advice do you have for communities that may also be interested in becoming a WHO Age Friendly City?
Communities can approach participation in the Age Friendly Cities initiative in different ways. One approach is saying, “We’ll begin with a multi-year assessment of needs and a planning process that will lead to an action plan that might be implemented in the third year of the initiative.” So at the outset what you’re doing is focusing entirely on an assessment of community conditions, and then a process of establishing some goals, developing a plan, and then moving towards implementation of that plan. Portland, OR is a good example of a municipality that followed that approach.

An alternative approach is one in which a municipality already has an idea of its needs, what it wants to accomplish and how to do it, and so it introduces some action initiatives early on. That’s the approach we took in Brookline. There has been a history of attention to senior needs, so we believed Brookline already knew a good deal about the needs of its seniors and we could build on the programs already in place.

Do you have any other advice for communities who are working to become more age friendly?
The Massachusetts Healthy Aging Data Report has these community profiles that are a really great asset for communities to use. Some communities think, “How can we possibly get something started? How can we get the resources to do that?” In fact there’s basic information that’s already there that can help them recognize their strengths and limitations.

Would you be willing to discuss this topic further with members of the Massachusetts Healthy Aging Collaborative?
I’m happy to communicate with people about age-friendly initiatives. I’m happy to volunteer to come and talk to people, too. My phone number is (617) 739-9228 and my email is frank.g.caro@gmail.com.

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