Aging in Place

October 15, 2014

“Was it you?!?” Al points at the fake political sign stuck in his garden celebrating his 89th birthday. He can’t decide if he’s annoyed or amused. Al hates birthdays and that’s too bad because he’s had a ton of them.

He and his wife Sparrow live across the street from my family on a short block with seven residents nearing or over 90 years old. Since my family moved onto the block six years ago I’ve wondered why aging in place has worked here. So many original owners in this mid-century modern sub-division built their dream homes and refused to leave.

If I had to guess, my neighbors and neighborhood have a number of things going for them:

Architecture

Mid-century designs tend to lay low to the ground, eliminating steps or using short flights to move between levels. Layouts are efficient with fewer formal spaces to clean and decorate.

Planning

The neighborhood was originally built around a rabbi’s home and many of the residents belonged to the temple, creating a naturally nurturing community. The sub-division was further anchored by an elementary school and a large natural area wrapping around two sides. Although the rabbi is gone and the school has been converted into a community center, the neighborhood still feels like a special family 60 years later.

Intellectual stimulation

Many residents work or worked at the University of Wisconsin, located just down the hill. Many of us continue to go to lectures, open houses and poetry readings offered on campus.

Al hates birthdays and that’s too bad because he’s had a ton of them.

Living in a generationally mixed neighborhood energizes seniors and builds empathy and a sense of history in kids. My experience with seniors up until the last few years was mainly grandparents and older family members, not peers that happen to be older. We visit our grandparents in retirement homes and communities and have a tremendously hard time relating to the group. That’s not the case with the seniors in my neighborhood.

I view retirement homes as one of the sad realities of an industrialized nation. As the population moved from rural to urban and families spread out across the country, people could no longer care for their older generation and “senior living” was born.

Now we are on the cusp of a senior boom. Will there be a corresponding senior housing boom? Let’s hope not. I think there is another way. We are living through an amazing and necessary “industrialization reversal” where hardware, software and markets are rebelling against many dehumanizing and destructive forces. Farmers markets, new urban living, e-commerce (both small and large scale), on-shoring, organic food, the tiny house movement, etc. I’m hoping that a technology driving an “aging-in-place” movement isn’t far behind.