One of Tom’s all-time favorite movies is Notorious, the Alfred Hitchcock thriller with Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains. It’s a typical ex-Nazi/spy/double-crossing feature, with some of the master’s best direction. One scene that always stuck with Tom was the final descent by Grant and Bergman down the main staircase, in which they were always moving, but which was shot in such a way that it seemed to take twice as long as it should have. It raised unbearable tension and a sense of heightened unreality. A simple staircase suddenly seemed something incredibly ominous.
When he got older, though, Tom would joke that every staircase began to seem like the one in Notorious. They all seemed unbearably long and slightly terrifying. Eventually, he had to move to a smaller home, an apartment in a six-story building that was defined by elevators. The building was surrounded by a vast parking lot, and it made going anywhere extremely difficult. What Tom had never realized before is how much our lives are affected by design. Where we live impacts how we live, and for Tom—elevator dependent and no longer able to drive—being in this new building made him virtually shut off from the world.
That’s an unfortunate reality of aging in this country: while we have buildings whose purposes are to house older adults, we don’t have much in the way of architecture or design to facilitate healthy lives that are active and engaged. Better design—more conscious design—is what is needed to promote independent living. In some places, this movement has already started.
Design for Older Adults Incorporates Newer Ideas About Aging In Place
Matthias Hollwich, a prominent architect and design theorist, was approaching 40 when he asked himself what it meant to live well as he aged. For most of us, we think about our health, and about being near our families, and about perhaps fulfilling some lifelong dreams of travel. While Hollwich was obviously interested in all that, he was also interested in how design and architecture impact our quality of life.
Look at the example of Tom. When his stairs became too burdensome for him to climb, he had to move. One of the few places without stairs was a condo building, six stories, with long hallways and not-great lighting. Just by the very nature of the building, most people lived behind closed doors. There were only a few common areas, and one of them was just the cramped lobby near the main elevator. There was a little library on the second floor, but for the most part people kept to themselves.
Then there was the location: inside a large parking lot surrounded by and bordering a car-oriented shopping center, filled with huge box-store chains. While Tom liked those stores, they became the extent of his outdoor experience. There are certain areas, away from trendy downtowns, that can hinder a person’s ability to walk to places. This is harmful to any community, but it is especially difficult for older people who have trouble driving themselves, and for whom walking is already more challenging. They are entirely dependent upon drivers or buses, which makes getting out and engaging with the community more difficult.
For Tom, this actually changed his personality. He was vivacious and always involved, from the Boy Scouts as a young man to the Elks after retirement, but his new circumstances changed that. When we would visit him, or in the times where he came out, he was still the old Tom, but that was rare, just by dint of circumstance.
This is something that Hollwich is working to fight. Buildings, and communities, need to be designed to accommodate older adults so that they can continue to engage with life. This is a long process, that needs both public and private engagement.
- A move toward smaller homes. Recently, Berkeley changed some of its zoning laws to allow for easier construction of “in-law suites” in garages or houses (known as “accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, in bureaucratese). This is important for older adults, who can then move in with grown children while still maintaining independence and privacy for everyone. It was a smart move by Berkeley. For years, we’ve had an obsession with huge houses, but almost by default those exclude people who have trouble with stairs. Zoning regulations that encourage smaller living areas that are complete, and part of the community, promote engagement with family and with the area. They make life easier. These aren’t shacks, either. Many of these Berkeley ADUs have elegant and space-maximizing designs, which allow older adults to live in peace and comfort.
- Independent living with group activity in mind. Of course, not everyone is going to live in an ADU or in-law suite. There will still be a need for multi-family developments, but these need to be designed with community as the primary focus. Instead of a bunch of rooms and a lobby, smart planning will introduce a series of common areas, from gyms to lounges. More than just a collections chairs, these are places where older adults meet new friends, start up clubs (chances are Tom is not the only person in his building who loves Hitchcock) and stay engaged. Meeting other people is a chance to explore new ideas, and even start new businesses. Hollwich talks about an increase in senior startups—but that is less likely to happen if people are isolated.
- Hub-oriented walker-friendly city planning. This is the next step, and probably the hardest one. It takes a matter of smart planning and civic will. Strong towns are already moving toward hub-oriented planning, which walkable areas are filled with mixed-use multi-family housing, moving away from cars and huge parking lots. These are generally oriented toward young people and young families, but they don’t have to be. Cities should also build and market the mixed-use buildings to older adults, who will benefit from having so much within easy walking distance.
Another benefit of these new ideas of cities and homes is that there is more generational mixing. It’s crucial to design both architecture and infrastructure around the idea that growing old doesn’t mean isolation or age-based segregation. Intergenerational housing as a matter of encouraged policy will allow older adults the chance to still contribute to society to the extent of their abilities, and to explore and to engage, instead of putting a lid on those abilities. It also reduces the stigma of aging by showing it to be just as important a part of life as being young. It puts people on equal footing.
Design and architecture are crucial elements to how we interact with the world. In our society, too often both of these factors promote relative isolation and a car-oriented lifestyle, neither of which are conducive to healthy and independent aging in place. With more conscious design, builders and city planners can make the destination toward which we are all traveling a more comfortable, more productive, and happier place to go.
Institute on Aging has resources on all facets of growing older, and has a knowledgeable staff that can provide whatever you or your loved one needs. Reach out to us today to see how we can help.