Making Aging Sexy

by impure_with_memory, Lublin, Poland

It’s a very exciting time to be involved with the field of aging studies, but then I’ve been fascinated with the subject for over 35 years. When I started this work, people would often express curiosity or find it humorous, even depressing, that anyone would be interested in such things. I am amused, at times, when aging celebrity authors “discover” the topic, as if they were the first to encounter the experience and, by virtue of personal reflection, have some premium on knowledge of the subject. That’s ok. After all, aging is certainly a personal learning experience, a process of discovery no doubt, as is life in general, no?

What I find particularly exciting, however, is that we are finally reconsidering aging beyond the narrow confines of its definition as a personal, individual journey. Moreover, we are expanding our definition of aging beyond its focus on the body alone, despite the commodification of aging through every imaginable product that Madison Avenue can hype. Finally, we are giving serious attention to the notion that aging and disability find their manifestation not in the body but in the relationship between the body and its surrounding environment. Necessarily, this politicizes the issues of aging and disability and transforms aging from a personal challenge to a community responsibility.

Through the lens of community, we can now re-envision the study of aging as a “place-based” endeavor. Aging activists (and disability advocates) can now align with the environmental movement in the new emphasis on livability and sustainable communities. A focus on supportive environments now joins the traditional aging-network emphasis on supportive services. Perhaps this new theoretical base for the discipline will attract the youthful attention that the field has always lacked. Yet, some clever marketing of our own might be in order, as our field continues to occupy the dark corners of academia.

Throughout the country, an aging-in-community movement is taking shape. Often, I observe, the impetus is provided by groups of women approaching late life, sharing concerns about their future, and sometimes driven by harsh realities of caregiving for elderly parents within a less than adequate system of care and support. Planning models are emerging and aging activists are indeed becoming educated about municipal planning, zoning, and the critical relationships among mobility, housing and land use decision making.

The AdvantAge Initiative (AI) planning model, including a new, online version of the AI community survey is being tested in three diverse settings: very rural Sonora, California; Georgetown, Texas, a rapidly growing retirement destination; and Clinton/Chelsea/Hell’s Kitchen neighborhoods in the thick of the Manhattan performing arts districts. Despite significant differences in the character of these communities, I am amazed at the degree of enthusiasm that people have for getting to the urgent work of planning community futures. Similarly, here in Indiana, my recent workshop on Livable Communities for Aging in Place filled the 35 participant slots within about a week of its advertisement. Something is clearly going on here. There is a pent-up demand for communities to face the future and a growing realization that change may occur at the local level long before the contentious federal debate about Social Security is ever resolved.

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2 Responses to Making Aging Sexy

  1. Kimon Koulet says:

    Hello Phil,

    As a planning professional in NH, I recently found that the region where I work has a median age of 45.2; which is older than the median age of Maine, the nation’s oldest state. The data came from the 2010 U.S. Census. At the same time, like most other places, our economy is stagnant and there are few growth trends, other than the rapdily rising median age of our residents (one of our towns has a median age over 55). I am curious if you are aware of any economic development strategies that have capitalized on these kind of demographics by creating new elder focused industries or services, which in turn generated jobs and a more sustainable economy. We often find ourselves struggling over how to attract younger professionals and skilled workers, when all around us is a growing older consumer base.

    Any assistance is appreciated.

  2. Kimon, thanks for this comment. I have often wondered about this issue as well, particularly when I hear small town mayors and other public officials lament the loss of young people and bemoan the aging of the population. Can we make the proverbial lemonade here? It’s worth a blog and it’s Sunday morning, rainy and dreary, so stay tuned.

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