This week's newspaper column:
With all our assorted human differences, there’s one thing we all have in common: Nobody is getting any younger. Barring some unfortunate fatal illness (or a much-too-casual relationship with heavy machinery), we will all at some point negotiate the world as senior citizens.
A few generations ago, the elderly among us depended almost solely upon the good graces of extended family for support and care, often living in the home of a child or some not-too-distant relative. Absent those accommodations, senior citizens might have found themselves – if they were lucky – in what was popularly referred to as the “old folks’ home.” Neither was a panacea, but in the so-called good ol’ days, average lifespans were considerably shorter and family life was more predictable, so people made do.
But as recent advancements in medical care and public health have added decades to our lives, seniors make up a much greater percentage of society than ever before. (In the twentieth century alone, the average lifespan in the US has increased by over 30 years.) And now, as the baby boom generation grays, we are on the verge of seeing an explosion in the demand for senior-friendly housing.
Among architects and planners, what was once called “elderly housing” has now given way to more politically-correct terms such as “retirement community” or “senior living” facilities, in part for marketing reasons, but also in recognition of the fact that we can expect an increasing number of years living active lives as we grow old. But almost always, those facilities – by design – have segregated seniors from the rest of society.
Think about the happiest people you know who are, shall we say, “up in years.” To a person, they seem to embody a strong sense of independence along with a level of activity that belies their years. It is no secret that consistent physical activity and mental stimulation promotes longevity and healthy aging, and that means interacting with those across the age spectrum and having the ability experience the world without the help of others.
Getting around in modern-day strip-mall America can be challenging enough for able-bodies behind the wheel of a car, but for seniors who may not have razor-sharp driving skills, or who have given up driving altogether, striking out on their own is simply out of the question.
So, what is the future of elder housing? (I use the term elder because the word implies the qualities of someone held up as a community leader or sage rather than the word elderly, which infers the quality of being old, and possibly in the way).
Drop “retirement” from “retirement community” and I think you’ll have the answer. The next generation of healthy senior living environments will involve the complete integration of elders into the greater community. Thus, new community infrastructure must be designed for walkability; housing must be situated near services, and continuous sidewalks must be the standard in all new neighborhoods.
Walking may be considered old-fashioned, but for healthy aging, it’s the new frontier.