We talk a lot about the need to demonstrate impact when we are using “other people’s money.” Fair enough. Accountability is good. Sometimes, however, we can get trapped by “other people’s metrics.” Had an email conversation with Bob Scarfo and Mia Oberlink this morning about whether we can demonstrate the bottom-line economic benfits of developing more elder-friendly communities through changes in land use, zoning, transit systems, etc. Boy – if we could do this, we’d have it made. Taxpayers and policy makers would leap on it! Regretfully, the research is pretty meager and sometimes contradictory. What if an elder gives up her car in favor of walking? By our current standard of measurement (GDP), coincidentally discussed on the NYTimes editorial page today, the economic benefit goes down, not up. She buys less gas, pays less insurance, pays less to her mechanic, etc. Even if she becomes more fit, her consumption of health care services goes down, not up. And we measure our country’s success by a rise, not a drop in GDP.
Now, I think there is room for studies that do indeed, focus on economic development benefits of certain elder-friendly community improvements. I am all for it!
On the other hand, we should be changing the terms of the debate as well, as Mia Oberlink suggested. There are many, many compelling arguments for change, but we do indeed need a new metric for measuring the intangibles: social capital generation through voluntarism and informal care; knowledge generation through mentorship and advice; generation of peace and understanding through social relationship building across generations; the generation of beauty through art and artisanship of elders; the generation of food through gardening and the care of children through babysitting and grandparenting.
I suspect there are other metrics we could employ and encourage readers to offer them up!