As a recent lunchtime stroll taught me, we have much to learn about planning communities that work for all ages and abilities!
Aside from the obvious issue of getting the utility guys to talk to the concrete guys, we must acknowledge our own mortality and stop creating Peter Pan communities where no one ever grows old.
How do we do this? Let’s start by a creating a non-medical discourse about aging. (Note: This blog started out as a column for the NY Times Op-Ed page. It didn’t “make the cut” as you see.) The Times’ New Old Age blog, while well researched and beautifully written, is almost totally devoted to medical issues and, appearing only in Tuesday’s Science Times, reinforces the notion that science is going to solve the “problem” of aging. Why not place the Times New Old Age blog in the Arts section? Can the arts not provide a proper framework and discourse for this issue – the art of aging?
If, as I believe, aging is about community and not about individual bodies, we have some challenges ahead. As we have fragmented the individual body into pieces with associated specialties, so have we fragmented communities into silos that separate housing from working, schools and shopping from neighborhoods, and, as a consequence, old from young. Face it… we live in an age-segregated society, and people with disabilities, as well, continue to find themselves on the margins, barely visible to the mainstream community.
We have created this disaggregated society because our model of aging sees old people only wanting to be around other old people, old people as needing to be cared for,chronological age as an accurate marker of needs and interests, and old people as consumers, not producers.
As a consequence we produce environments that are:
age-segregated, clinical in character, risk managed, and commodified, therefore expensive, with consumable goods and services that we used to be able to access by virtue of our own labor.
Creating livable places for all ages and abilities should be the guiding mantra as we enter an era of rebuilding our infrastructure. Small towns and cities all across the country are struggling to find their future identity and are rightly worried that new investments will favor old patterns of urban sprawl. Yet, these communities often retain significant community fabric, with main street infrastructure and wonderful core neighborhoods that echo the former, pre-suburban character of walkability, mixed-use, density, and architectural richness.
A savvy media would turn its attention away from glitzy sunbaked, often gated “active aging” communities to where the real action is. Linton, Indiana is a blue-collar (former) mining community of 5,000 in rural southern Indiana. Here’s a “naturally occurring retirement community” (a NORC) where a hard-working committee of older citizens organized to retrofit an aging neighborhood by modifying 19 homes for safety, independence and mobility. A progressive Mayor and City Council added its support with the approval of a golf cart ordinance that provides new cost-saving mobility options for the nearly 100 residents who purchased licenses in the first few weeks. Now, the owner of the local pharmacy has put his personal economic livelihood at risk to restore and develop two entire blocks of Main Street as affordable senior and family housing, converting the old Ciné movie theater and creating new street-level space for retail and service.
For an urban example, look at Amsterdam Towers, a NORC in New York City, where the acronym originated. This post-war high-rise complex of 13 public housing buildings is called home by close to 600 mostly African American and Hispanic elders who have raised their families and aged in place successfully. The 60-year-old Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center, serving the Towers and surrounding neighborhood, engaged the seniors’ advisory council in a partnership with the Visiting Nurse Service of New York AdvantAge Initiative. The Initiative surveyed elders in the community and the Neighborhood Center community organizers put seniors in touch with local public officials across the spectrum of housing, transportation, local government, hospital care, police, fire and even the US Postal Service. Enabling the seniors to speak firsthand to their experiences and needs with influential people was all it took to foster rapid response that resulted in new on-site mental health services, an enhanced food program, increased police security, and even a new, closer mail box. All this community building work is a testament to the power of good data put to use with enthusiastic community organizing.
In the next ten years, we will see these examples replicated a thousandfold; this, not the gated village, is the future of senior living. It’s a future based on the notion that aging is about place, not body, and about relationship, not the individual quest for eternal youth. As Wendell Berry writes, “community is the smallest unit of health.”