Being and Dwelling: in praise of occupational therapists

March 20, 2014

Recently, I had the privilege of participating in a small conference on Palliative Care convened by the Center for Practical Bioethics (https://www.practicalbioethics.org/) with support from Kathy Greenlee, head of the Administration on Community Living and Asst. Secretary (HHS) of the Administration on Aging. The presentations were outstanding and gave me some new insights into the role of the health care system in communities for a lifetime. I was under the false impression that palliative care was all about end of life care when, in fact, it’s about quality of life, whether one is near death or not. While most participants came from the fields of medicine, I was invited to offer a “community” perspective on the issues. I would like to share my comments with the Phil’s Adventure audience, and solicit yours in return.

Being and Dwelling

In praise of occupational therapists

In the final days of his life, unable to dictate and suffering from immense pain of throat cancer, U.S. Grant scribbled a few final thoughts…

“I do not sleep though I sometimes doze a little. If up I am talked to and in my efforts to answer cause pain. The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three.”

I find the quote evocative for its relevance to an understanding of the concept of home in the lifeworld of elders. In short, if home is in any way an object, its meaning only derives from use. Hence, as outsiders, we must pay constant attention to movement in the lifeworld of elders, which is a challenge to our stereotypical view of old age as a period of stasis and rest.

Consider this beautiful passage from Wendell Berry’s The Memory of Old Jack, its description of the old farmer Jack Beechum and the identity between self and environment that is created by movement.

He had known no other place. From babyhood he had moved in the openings and foldings of the old farm as familiarly as he moved inside his clothes … Now when he walked in his fields and pastures and woodlands he was tramping into his mind the shape of the land, his thought becoming indistinguishable from it, so that when he came to die, his intelligence would subside into it like his own spirit.

When I was Director of Senior Health services at an Indiana hospital, we often asked seniors “What do you want the health care system to do for you?” Invariably, the answer would be…”to help me manage at home as long as I can”, what Marian Barnes calls “being well enough.”  Seniors saw the concepts of health and home as an identity, one unrecognized by both the health care and the housing systems I would add.

With this in mind, we undertook ethnographic research on the meaning of home for older adults in our community. A deep map of home emerged, organized around several basic elements.

First, home is a complex concept, far more significant than “house.” In our research we encountered individuals who have lived in the same house for over 75 years! It requires a virtual archaeology of memory to peel back the deep sediments of meaning of a life in such a place. These memories, good and bad, are codified in the physical contents of the place. As she walks through the house the tenant walks through her life. Photos, furniture stains, knick knacks, postcards, window vistas, even dents in the woodwork signify and embody important events and individuals in her life. How could she be expected to easily leave behind the door jamb marked by a pencil with the advancing height of her children and grandchildren?

Home is a physical support. Over time, home and body coalesce, a hand in glove. We can walk through our home with our eyes closed because we maintain its physical representation within our body. This is very comforting. Managing the home (sometimes trivialized as homemaking) anchors daily life, provides markers for our temporal experience, and provides cues and incentives to keep our body and mind active.

Home is a social base. When you are home, it’s your territory, your turf. You control who enters. When you are home you are at the node of a social network of friends, neighbors and family, where well-being is not an individual state but is generated through relationships. As Berry says, in another essay, “Community is the smallest unit of health.”

Home is an aesthetic. You design its appearance for self-satisfaction and display to others. The aesthetic reflects your own sense of self just as importantly as does your clothing and your car.

With all these things in play, the home becomes a mirror for the self. It represents you to yourself and, as such, provides a constant reminder of your uniqueness and contributions to your family, your neighborhood, your community. Is it any wonder why someone would want to stay put?

Understanding the lifeworld of older persons from the inside is an essential starting point for design, whether of environments or of services. This requires close observation and deep listening. Psychiatrist Robert Coles, trained by physician poet William Carlos Williams, spent some time with Nellie Benoit, over 90 years of age, in preparation for his book Old and On Their Own .

Nellie reports that they say she’s legally blind with glaucoma and “all I can see is ‘forms’ or ‘outlines’ of objects. But I say (to myself) that they are way, way off track. I can see a whole lifetime of scenes, people and places, all the details, in black and white and in color, even if their medical instruments say I can’t!”

For Nellie, the sun is her daily companion. “…without the sun, the whole planet would die… so when I can catch sight of that light, creeping in here, I talk to it, I say ‘Welcome and please make yourself at home… I say I know you’ve got other folks to visit, and I don’t want to get possessive, and try to hoard all your treasure, and not share it with others – but it’s so nice to have you here and I’d like you to know that.” …Now after a while, I can feel the sun getting ready to leave. Things will cool down! Things get darker! I’ll start gabbing again. I’ll talk to that fading light; it gets dimmer, saying good-bye, and I feel my heart sinking. But I try to be cheerful, and express my gratitude: ‘Thank you ever so much’, I say. ‘So long and I hope and pray I’ll be here, and see you tomorrow’. I say, ‘You’ve been kind, to visit us, and I sure wish you a safe and sound trip.’ I say. ‘What joy you’ve brought us, and we are all so grateful, ‘ I say.”

Though Nellie herself moves only so slowly through her house, she participates in a daily round and shares a path with the sun. In fact, home is the path.

Among philosophers, Martin Heidegger has spoken extensively about the identification of self and place, of dwelling and thinking. He notes that the etymological history of the word dwelling, bauen, in German, means to build, but has as its cognate the word bin, as in ich bin, I am, du bist, you are, the imperative form bis, to be:

What then does ich bin mean? The old word bauen, to which the bin belongs, answers: ich bin, du bist mean: I dwell, you dwell. The way in which you are and I am, the manner in which we humans are on the earth, is Buan, dwelling. To be human … means to dwell (1971, 147).

He proceeds to elaborate on the old definition of home to mean to remain, to stay in a place and compares it to the Old Saxon woun, which also means to be at peace. Hence, the word home comes to mean retreat, a place of safety and security – dwelling as a noun, not verb.  Heidegger misses the possibility of home as path, so beautifully enacted by Nellie.

If being and dwelling are identities, and if home and travel are not antithetical, it follows that achieving a sense of place in old age does not require “aging in place”, in its narrow sense of aging in the house. Aging with a sense of place can be accomplished in many ways. The question is not whether staying put or relocating south is the right solution. The question is… can we fill our spaces with meaning and memory? Can we attain a sense of agency, where what we do makes a difference? Can we dwell in the other? Can we transform space into a place that reflects who we imagine ourselves to be? This is why the occupational therapist, working exclusively at the fulcrum of home and health, may be the most important member of the palliative care team.

In the end, we return to the starting point – home is a verb, not a noun. Home is created by going in and out of the circles of life that surround us. I have found no better definition of this premise than one provided by a poetry group of Adult Day Care participants with dementia:

I have several homes

I know a home is a home when I can

Go there

Stay

And go out again.

Home is where the dog goes

When it gets too cold to roam

When winter’s coming on

That’s when I want to go

Home.

 

Phil Stafford, Ph.D., is a cultural anthropologist and Director of the Center on Aging and Community at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. staffor@indiana.edu. He blogs at Phil’s Adventures in Elderburbia: http://agingindiana.wordpress.com/

 

 References and readings on the meaning of home: a brief list

Bachelard, Gaston. 1994. (trans.) The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon.

Barnes, Marian, Taylor, D and Ward, L (2013) ‘Being well enough in old age’, Critical Social Policy, vol.

33, no. 3, 473-493.

Berry, Wendell. 1974. The Memory of Old Jack. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

___1995. Health is Membership, in Another Turn of the Crank. New York: Counterpoint

Csikszentmihaly, Mihaly, and Eugene Rochberg-Halton. 1981. The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Coles, Robert. 1997. Old and on Their Own. With photographs by Alex Harris and Thomas Roma. New York: Norton.

Ekerdt, David K. and Julie F. Sargent. 2006. Family Things: Attending the household disbandment of older adults. Journal of Aging Studies 20: 193-205.

Gubrium, Jaber. 1993. Speaking of Life: Horizons of Meaning for Nursing Home Residents. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Gubrium, Jaber F. and Andrea Sankar, eds. 1990. The Home Care Experience: Ethnography and Policy.

Newbury Park: Sage.

Heidegger,M. 1971 (orig. 1927). Building, Dwelling, Thinking. In Poetry, language, thought. A. Hofstadter, (trans.).New York: Harper and Row.

Jackson, Michael. 1995. At Home in the World. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Korosec-Serfaty, Perla 1985. Experience and Use of the Dwelling. In Home Environments. Irwin

Altman and Carol M. Werner, eds., New York: Plenum Press.

Marcus, Claire Cooper. 1995. House as a Mirror of Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home. Berkeley: Conari Press.

Sanders, Scott Russell. 1993. Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World. Boston: Beacon.

Snyder, Gary. 1990. The Practice of the Wild. San Francisco: North Point Press.

Stafford, Philip B.  2001. When Community Planning Becomes Community Building: Place-Based Activism and the Creation of Good Places to Grow Old. In L.F. Heumann, M.E.    McCall, D.P. Boldy, eds., Empowering Frail Elderly People. Wesport, CT: Praeger.

___2003. Homebodies: Voices of Place in a North American Community”. In Gray Areas: Ethnographic Encounters with Nursing Home Culture., Philip B. Stafford, ed., Santa Fe: SAR Press.

___2009. Aging in the Hood: Creating and Sustaining Elder Friendly Environments. In The Cultural Context of Aging: Worldwide Perspectives. Jay Sokolovsky, ed., Westport:

Praeger.

___2009. Living Large while Living Small: The Spatial Life of Aging Boomers. In Boomer Bust? Economic and Political Issues of the Graying Society. Robert B. Hudson, ed., Westport: Praeger.

___2009. Elderburbia: Aging with a Sense of Place in America. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. 1977. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Risk vs. Challenge

July 2, 2013

 

I heard a fascinating presentation by Lamine Madjoubi (Bristol University UK) at the International Making Cities Livable Conference in Portland, OR last week.

http://www.livablecities.org/conferences/50th-conference-portland

Lamine studies the culture of childhood and has done research on children’s play in the UK. Using accelerometers and GPS monitoring, the research team is able to track children’s level of activity and their range over the course of a day. Given the interest in physical activity and obesity these days, the research is very important and helps us learn what factors in the built environment promote higher levels of activity.

The team compared intensity and duration of activity across formal to informal environments. Formal play environments would include playgrounds with equipment and some supervision and informal environments would include, of course, those in-between spaces that children love – alleys, streets, the spaces between buildings.

What the research demonstrated is that play in informal environments is more likely to be of higher intensity and longer duration. Those spaces that are informal but also allow for parental supervision (courtyards, for example) promote higher quality play but that unaccompanied children are more likely to play longer and choose informal areas over formal ones. Growing up in a small town 60 years ago with lots of independence, these findings are, to me, not surprising at all.

Dr. Mahdjoubi asks – “Can we take back the streets for children?”, knowing full well that the psychology of parenthood these days is very protective, often for legitimate reasons. Yet, have we gone too far?

Can we move the discussion from risk to challenge?

I think the same question would enervate our discussion of aging and frailty. As caregivers for elders we are often faced with the same dilemma. Certainly, in this age of litigation, the balance in institutions is shifted towards risk-reduction. Yet, in families too, the dreaded “Fall” is loaded with psychological burden and we have come to use the “Fall” as the marker (justification) for “placing” people in institutional environments. I am as guilty as others on this score. Is it no wonder that elderly individuals living alone don’t report falls?  They know full well what this can mean.

Discussions of safety are not productive when we frame the issue in black and white terms. Let’s think of this as a continuum and design built environments that push the envelope a bit without being totally negligent or totally over protective. We can’t eliminate risk from childhood or elderhood. We can reduce risk through smart design while promoting environments that challenge us, physically, mentally and socially. Indeed, facing risk and successfully coping promotes resilience and a new balance, at a higher level of fitness.

I don’t have the answers. The designers do. But this design, to be smart, must be informed by an insider’s knowledge of childhood and an insider’s knowledge of what it is like to grow old. Who has that knowledge?  Why children and elders of course!


Home is a Verb: Designing around the lifeworld of elders

April 15, 2013

My latest blog is found at the newsletter of the American Architectural Foundation: http://www.archfoundation.org/

If you live near Bloomington, come to our spring workshop: Places with a Purpose: Communities for a Lifetime, with Jan Hively, Kim Irwin, Scott Ball and Zach Benedict.

Flyer found here: http://lifetimecommunities.org/

and see what else we are up to at the Center on Aging and Community: http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/index.php?pageId=31

Apologies for double postings. The subscription list is growing and someday I won’t have to bother you with yet another email.

Happy spring!

Phil


From Complete Streets to Complete Communities: Moms Needed

December 10, 2012

 

Fred Kent, the founder of the Project for Public Spaces, spoke in Indianapolis last week, at the annual Indiana Governor’s Conference for People with Disabilities. PPS is an incredibly valuable and creative organization, now engaged with cities around the world as they re-design public spaces that promote harmony, beauty, sociality and peace. As the conference was focusing on livability this year (in itself a creative twist from the ordinary), Fred was discussing the concept of “complete streets” – all the rage these days in the healthy and sustainable community movement. He suggested that we need to take the complete streets discussion (streets designed for all forms of transportation) a step further (no pun intended). He argued that a street is not really complete until it becomes a destination and not merely a thoroughfare. Think about the greatest streets in the world for a moment, and you’ll realize what he’s talking about.

It got me thinking about what the next logical step would be. I awoke in the middle of the night recently with the revelation – we need to move the discussion from complete streets to complete communities. What would a complete community look like? A partial answer came by way of a meeting a few days later…

I was in a meeting with our local (and terrific) Bloomington Mayor Mark Kruzan the other day. We got to talking about my mom, who was among a group of older women that Mark considered matriarchs of the local Democratic Party. (My mom died in 2007 at age 89.) He noted that when he was starting out in politics, it was like he had a “bunch of moms” to guide and support him in his career.

His comment was a perfect segue into our agenda topic: the qualities of a “lifetime community.” Yes, in a great community, a complete community, young people have access to mentors. In a community that attracts young people from elsewhere, these mentors become surrogate parents and grandparents. A community that attracted young professionals without grounding them in relationships with elders (who is anybody with local experience) would be falling short. Certainly, yuppies should and do enjoy their peers, especially after work. But a complete community engages young professionals with experience. This doesn’t mean that elders are always right. In fact, much of their wisdom comes from failure, not success. When I think of the benefits of age and of staying put, I would point to the “bridging capital” represented by the network of relationships accumulated by people with experience. Young people hanging out together build a strong base of “bonding capital” – the camaraderie that derives from being part of the gang. But, as important and satisfying that may be, the gang needs bridging capital – it needs connections to other resources and influences outside of the group. Often, these connections can be made through those people who know everybody and whom everybody knows – a community’s elders. That’s what President Obama was talking about when he said “You didn’t make that.”

I sometimes wonder if the tragic disappearance of a young IU student by the name of Lauren Spierer couldn’t have been avoided if she’d had a strong relationship with a surrogate mom or grandma here in Bloomington. She bonded strongly with her peers. She needed a bridge to someone outside of her network. Lauren’s mother, visiting town recently, noted how she wished she could simply pass along her own wisdom born of loss to those women she saw walking alone at night in this college town. As a community, we failed to protect Lauren. Can we design more complete communities that provide the stability derived from  intergenerational relationships? Mars may need moms but we need them even more desperately.

 

 

 


Aging in Community

April 27, 2012

utility pole is placed directly in front of wheelchair ramp

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.”


Advancing the Livable Community Agenda

January 26, 2012
old lady with canes

photo by emilio labrador, Rouens, France

Last week I had the privilege of meeting with a group of funders and a few organization folks in Phoenix, Arizona. As an EngAgement Initiative grantee *, the Arizona Grantmakers Forum has sponsored three gatherings to address critical issues emerging from the changing age demographics in the state. This last meeting focused on the concept of “communities for all ages” – territory that is familiar to many Arizonans due to the good work in several communities funded by the Arizona Community Foundation and, more recently, W.K. Kellogg and supported by Temple University’s Intergenerational Center.  We were introduced to remarkable projects in Tucson and in Ajo, Arizona ǂ.

Of significance in this effort to advance an important initiative is the partnership with the Maricopa Association of Governments, which hosted the meeting and is providing valuable technical assistance and leadership into the future as Maricopa County, and eventually the entire state, work to create more livable communities across the lifespan.

Dozens, perhaps scores of cities and towns around the U.S. (and globally, in fact) are enthusiastically embracing a “livable community” approach to making our places work for people of all ages and abilities. Often, livable community initiatives acknowledge that elders and people with disabilities benefit from livability improvements but, I would argue, these categories of experience are not often foregrounded in the community development model. Age and disability can both provide critically important lenses through which we can better understand the relationship between people and their environments. Until livability advocates can fully engage the broadest range of experience of those who have been marginalized by age or disability, we will continue to need “elder-friendly” and “inclusive community” planning  models. I should add childhood and youth to those categories of experience we need to better understand.

The Phoenix discussion was useful in helping identify some of the key questions and imperatives that will drive the livability agenda forward. I encourage blog readers to add their observations and proposed solutions to some of the dilemmas and opportunities.

  • With respect to aging in our communities, we should try to understand the forces that lead to age-segregation.

Unlike segregation by race, disability, or other forms of difference, age-segregation is not typically seen as a form of discrimination. (For purposes of discussion, I am not including age discrimination in employment in this argument.) As I mentioned in the discussion, “We have a kind of separate but equal thing going on with age-segregation.” As an academic might put it – we haven’t problematized age-segregation in our society. We all observe that youth, adults and elders, in many respects, go their separate ways and “hang together” with their own and, moreover, “that’s ok.”

But is it ok? What are the consequences of age-segregation? I would suggest they include:

  • Intergenerational misunderstanding, sometimes leading to conflict.
  • Loss of community memory.
  • Most importantly, the failure to tap incredibly valuable resources that benefit the entire community.

So what are the forces that lead to age-segregation?

  • Public policy in education that isolates children from adult society.
  • Public policy in housing that segregates age groups from one another through funding, design, marketing and suburban development patterns.
  • An economy that promotes transience through its dependence on the portability of labor and the lack of local economic opportunities for young adults.
  • Inadequate community design features that, as a consequence, limit physical access to mainstream environments by elders, people with disabilities, and non-drivers such as children.
  • And underlying all of these realities, fundamental cultural attitudes and presumptions that reinforce ageism while, at the same time, promoting niche marketing that segments age groups and leads to diverse lifestyles and, ultimately, age-specific  communication patterns and language.

What is perhaps interesting about overcoming age-segregation is that this may not be solved through incremental litigation and direct action (a civil rights approach) so much as by a collective, collaborative, community development strategy. If this is true, some important questions need to be asked at multiple levels…

What are the underlying conditions that will pre-dispose a community to success in creating a livable community for all ages and abilities?

            What leadership will be required?

            What degree of capital is required (social, cultural, natural, economic, human, physical, cultural)?

            When is a community “ready-to-proceed?”

            How do we recognize success?

            How do we sustain success?

What is the appropriate scale for our efforts?

            Neighborhood?

            Municipality?

            Region?

            State?

            Federal?

What are the points of leverage we should be addressing?

            Local policy and practice?

            State legislation?

            Federal legislation?

What forms of education and professional development will best prepare future leaders of this movement?

            Place-based education?

            Community organizing?

            Service-learning?

How can we cross boundaries in language, policy, funding, and practice in order to break down siloes that prevent cross-sector thinking and collaboration?

Can we identify and focus on budget-neutral changes in society that will lead to greater age-integration?

Do cultural blinders lead us to particular kinds of solutions, and make us miss others? Does one definition of livability hold up across cultures?

There are certainly other issues and themes to identify and address as we think about ways to create more livable communities – needed research, forms of advocacy, where programs fit into the infrastructure, best practices in design, resident participation strategies and others. Too much for one blog, I dare say, so I’ll close once again with two simple questions that represent the beginning and the end of effective livable community building:

As we look at multiple environments throughout our community, can we see “old people everywhere?” (after C. Alexander)

and

Can we answer the question: “Where do the children play?” (after Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens)

*Grantmakers in Aging (GIA) is an educational nonprofit membership organization for staff and trustees of foundations and corporations, and the only national professional organization of grantmakers active in the field of aging.

±  Communities for All Ages (CFAA) is a national initiative that helps communities address critical issues from a multi-generational perspective and promote the well-being of all age groups.

http://communitiesforallages.org


Small Town/Home Base

December 4, 2011
old artist mentors young

from The Art of Aging: A Celebration of Old Age in Western Art, 1987, McKee, P.L. and Kauppinen, H. New York: Insight Books

(Note: Scroll to the end for information about an upcoming national conference call on Communities for a Lifetime)

My town of Bloomington likes to claim John Mellencamp as one of its most famous citizens, but Mr. Mellencamp was actually born and raised in Seymour, Indiana, down Highway 65 about 50 miles. So when he sings about “small town”, he’s not talking about Bloomington. Relative to Seymour, Bloomington was the big city when John decided to bring his band to the Bluebird cafe. I think he was known as Johnny Cougar back in those days. As a new graduate student in anthropology at Indiana University, I remember Johnny Cougar flyers on telephone posts but can’t say I made the clubs in those years (or now for that matter).

Seymour’s loss was Bloomington’s gain. But it’s an old story, as creative young people have always seen “getting out of town” as the first step to success in life. When the small town doesn’t provide opportunities for young people, you either leave or you feel trapped.

And there’s another thread to this story. The old people? They remain behind.

So what makes this old story different now?

The scale of the issue: small towns provide fewer and fewer opportunities for young people and there are more and more and more older people. This is the central point of Kimon Koulet’s wise comment to my last blog. Kimon is a planning professional in a New Hampshire region with a median age of 45.2, older than the state of Maine, the oldest state in the country. Kimon echoes comments I have heard from many small town Mayors and public officials. They are searching for new economic strategies that can deter the forces that stretch and snap the geographic ties between youth and age.

I am aware of but a few isolated attempts to turn the perceived burden of an aging population into an economic engine. But I believe the conversation has started.

One approach emphasizes the older person as consumer. This is central to “retiree retention and attraction” strategies, characteristically but not entirely, practiced by tourism promoters in southern states. Knowing that prior touristic behavior is a strong predictor of relocation and resettlement, several of these programs receive direct support from state departments of tourism (Mississippi and Louisiana, for example). More recently, towns in the New West have positioned themselves as retirement destinations, often beating out the traditional “sunny climes” model of the previous generation of retirees. Truly, entire regions in the New West have been transformed from extractive to service-based economies, organized around the needs and portfolios of a retired population.

A second approach emphasizes the older person as a patient. I am stretching the point, but, in my experience, I see public officials eagerly competing to receive the economic benefits of the latest institutional response to the health care needs of the elderly – assisted living, long term nursing facilities, and shiny new hospitals.

All well and good, but narrowly focused and missing the real opportunities to organize local economies not around the passive needs of older adults but around their productive potential. This is the town I am looking for and I urge readers to help me find the model…

It’s a town that actively cultivates and supports “elderpreneurs”, through development of work/live environments on newly enriched downtown main streets. It provides start-up consultancies (has an active SCORE chapter). At the same time, it supports elders in the creative class to mentor and hire young people into their professions and businesses. It creates a vibrant downtown culture that integrates, rather than segregates elders from hip young professionals.  It doesn’t support a rave venue and it doesn’t create a downtown senior center that is off-putting to young people. One of the hippest places I ever enjoyed is the Center for Southern Folklore in the heart of downtown Memphis. Talk about integrating old and young! 

It’s a town that attracts new industries that derive particular benefit from a mature work force interested in part-time and/or seasonal employment, with flexible benefits and a socially enticing climate.

It’s a town that makes it easier to get by on a lower level of attachment to the mass market. Because it’s compact, walkable and bikeable, one can seriously consider abandoning that costly auto. Because it celebrates and cultivates creativity at all ages, it is a town that is beautiful, exciting, unpredictable, and stimulating. Because so many new workers in the digital age (young and old) can work from “anywhere”, this town is totally wired – local and global at the same time.

I am guessing there are elements of this town in many areas of the country. What I am looking for is the town that has put all of this together, intentionally and comprehensively, and has accumulated evidence that it works – that it creates a local economy that keeps and attracts creative and productive citizens and future citizens, both young and old. If you find one, call me!!!

Shameless Plug: Join me and others in an interesting discussion of these topics in the next Community Matters phone call, Dec. 8, 2011: http://www.communitymatters.org/communities-all-ages


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