Aging in Community

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.”

7 Responses to Aging in Community

  1. Thanks for sharing this! Here’s my share to FB and comment:

    “Think about it guys… ?? THIS is why I speak as often as I can on “The Aging In Place Advantage” and “Empowering the Mature Mind” in the marketplaces that need to hear about it. We’re not considering seriously enough, where the population is heading, at a record breaking pace!!! Contact me if your industry needs to hear the message!!! Thank you… ” Aaron D. Murphy, Architect, CAPS “Certified Aging In Place Specialist – and
    & on FB at:!/ADMarchitecture and also at!/EmpoweringTheMatureMind
    follow me on twitter @AaronDMurphy

  2. Sharon says:

    Phil, great post. Your point about the current view (and practices growing out it) being one of older people are doing old people things and with mainly being with other old people reminded me of something observed during my recent trip to China. Granted, we we were visiting wealthier cities in the southern economic zones, where the population is quite young, our entire group was suprised to see almost no older people or presons with disabilities. While crowding and infrastructure issues would make it difficult for the very old and persons with disabilities to move around successfully, the invisibility of these groups was still mysterious. So, we asked one of our local guides “Where are the older people?” He very quickly responded, “They are off with other old people doing, you know, old people things.” When asked what this might be, he indicated things like tai chi, playing games, just having tea and talking. Yet, when we met some friends of our tour guide, Chinese residents in their 70’s about their lives, they talked animatedly of their tango lessons, travel, and other engaging activities. It seems our ways of viewing older people is not limited to just our country, but part of a more pervasive image issue which limits policy and action based in the realities of older persons and their communities.

    • So interesting. On a variation, there was an article in the B-ton paper a couple of days ago about the pressure on hotels to install ADA compliant swimming pool lifts/ramps. One hotel owner was quoted as saying. “Never once have I had a person with a disability ask for a lift.” And how many years did it take for someone to demand to sit in the front of the bus?, as Rev. Al Sharpton has noted…

  3. […] Stafford, director of Indiana University’s Center on Aging and Community, wrote in this blog post: “In the next 10 years, we will see these examples replicated a thousandfold; this, not the gated […]

  4. […] Stafford, director of Indiana University’s Center on Aging and Community, wrote in this blog post: “In the next 10 years, we will see these examples replicated a thousandfold; this, not the gated […]

  5. […] Stafford, director of Indiana University’s Center on Aging and Community, wrote in this blog post: “In the next 10 years, we will see these examples replicated a thousandfold; this, not the gated […]

  6. I’m currently looking for a place near East Cobb where I can age in place. I believe I’ve found one, and now need to find a person that wants to house share (intentional community) to make it work financially. I’m writing a book on this subject due out in early 2015: Living Among Friends, Housing Options for Boomers. Christian Lambrecht

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