Atlantic Cities

In Search of 'Eldertopia'

In Search of 'Eldertopia'
Katie Chu

Some 54 million Americans over the age of 55 are hoping to grow old in their own homes, and that population should increase by 50 percent over the next 30 years. Their hope is no easy thing to realize, because most American housing stock wasn’t built grow (or shrink) with us as our needs evolve.

But cutting edge strategies for aging-in-place are coming from an unlikely source: the university classroom.

"We have a responsibility to train the next generation of architects to think about accessibility and housing flexibility," says Georgeen Theodore, associate professor and director of the Infrastructure Planning Program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. "It shouldn’t just be a niche market for older adults, but part of the larger project of housing."

Theodore's students interviewed senior citizens to understand their needs at different stages of life, then considered the full spectrum of issues related to aging in place: connectivity, transit, density and social interaction among them. Incorporating these notions, her students dreamed up housing types and communities that could shift with the needs of the inhabitants.

One model might look like this: a two-family house in which a young couple could live in one unit early in life, expand into the second unit when they had a family of their own, and then contract again into one unit for the empty nest years. This could work not just because it addresses the social and physical aspects of housing for older adults, but because it comes with a built-in economic angle: a family or individual could finance aging-in-place by renting out that second unit.

"Typically, when architects design a building, they are designing it for its first users," says Theodore. "In the studio, we designed our housing and community infrastructure to accommodate change over the years."

At Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Professor Dan D’Oca—Theodore’s partner at the planning and design firm Interboro Partners—taught a studio on age-friendly design. "We wanted [the students] to consider, and design for, this massively changing demographic," says D’Oca.

The ideas ranged from the simple and entrepreneurial to the grand and policy-oriented. They included a power scooter-sharing program, modeled after bike shares; multi-generational playgrounds; accessory dwelling units grafted onto existing garden apartments; and a "Belt Bus" that would connect the various NORCs near the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn, whose residents currently have no way to interact.


A website for Share a Scooter, courtesy of James McNally (left); A "bike lane" for scooters, courtesy of Rachael Cleveland (right)

Architecture and planning schools aren’t the only institutions thinking about senior housing. Some universities offer degrees in senior housing administration, and plenty of schools offer minors in gerontology. Part of the reason is practical -- elderly care is a growing field constantly in need of good recruits.

Aurea Osgood, a professor of Sociology at Winona State University in Minnesota, spent a semester dreaming up eldertopias. "I wanted the students to make a perfect world for the elderly," she says. Her students spent the semester studying healthy modes of aging—what makes it fun and feel good to be old—and investigating things that already worked in the world around them. Small changes, like adding wheelchair lifts to public buses, were just as important as accessible housing, they found.


Image courtesy of Katie Chu

They honed in on the importance of inter-generational housing and activities that drew on the expertise and experience of the older generation. Aging in place is not always about the design of physical spaces, but the activities that take place within them, and who else lives there.

“We don’t necessarily need special buildings if older adults are invited into elementary schools to spend a day with students," says Osgood, although, admittedly, elders need to be able to get from their home to the school.

Her students proposed education programs in which seniors taught courses based on their expertise, while their young students taught them to Skype. They suggested community centers on college campuses, elder-taught cooking or gardening classes, and expanded public transit routes. And of course they focused on reducing or eliminating physical barriers. Automatic doors, ramps, and touches of universal design elements like light switches lowered on the walls were all considered.

But perhaps most surprising to Osgood’s students was the reality of aging in America: yes, we may not be prepared for 54 million Americans to celebrate their 80th birthdays in their own homes. But things aren’t quite at crisis level. "They all assumed that older adults have it really bad and that there are only problems," says Osgood. "But they saw the positive side of aging—the joy, the health, the ability to give back."

Lisa Selin Davis has written about cities, architecture, the environment and real estate for the New York Times, Time and many others. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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