Design for a Small (Aging) Planet

March 30, 2015

small planet

I am looking forward to an exciting and stimulating symposium to be held here in Bloomington, April 30-May 1. Leading edge thinkers and practitioners will address design issues “from closet to community”, helping to make concrete contributions to this growing notion of aging-as-place.
Check out the registration details (it’s cheap) and the speaker line-up here: http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/cacdesign

Our block of reserved rooms at the Indiana Memorial Union on the beautiful Indiana University campus will be released on April 3, so please register now if interested!

I just returned from the American Society on Aging annual conference in Chicago, where age and ability-friendly sessions were very popular – a far cry from 10 years ago! Rebecca Johnson from Northwestern University did a great job of organizing a session I was in – 70 people, a full room. The first time I ever presented on the topic (guessing 1998) it was scheduled in the very last, Sunday morning slot. I had two people in the audience.

I also had the wonderful privilege of a side trip to the Austin neighborhood with Kristin Bodiford, Cathy and Michael Sykes to visit with Miss Mary Peery, 90-year-old founder of the local intergenerational community garden initiative. See Kristin’s Facebook page for all the details. Kristin is much more adept than I with social media.

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On Placemaking: An Anthropologist’s Perspective

March 13, 2015

Preserving People – Preserving Place

July 10, 2014
The Ward-Franzmann House circa 1840

The Ward-Franzmann House circa 1840

I believe there is a natural fit between the movement to create age and ability-friendly communities and historic preservation. This may have grown from my lifelong interest in all things old. My house, above, and I are growing older together, and, as it seems, both entering the winter of life. It’s a good fit. My personal passions and biases aside, nevertheless, I feel a case can be made that proponents of these two movements have much to say to each other and then much to do together.

Indiana Landmarks is one of the most highly respected and the largest private statewide preservation group in the U.S. There is another story there, of course, about leadership, vision, commitment and creativity. This last quality, I believe, helps account for its recent support of a day-long conference in Indianapolis on the subject of this old people-old place connection. Co-organized by another uniquely statewide Indiana treasure called the Indiana Philanthropy Alliance, the conference brought together preservationists and aging/disability professionals in what may have been the first meeting of its kind in the U.S.

Presenters addressed many of the technical issues surrounding accessible modifications for historic homes and commercial properties, the potential for a virtuous relationship between history and the ADA, and financial resources communities can use for historic preservation that benefits older populations, including Main Street restoration.

My contribution was to tender some thoughts about the relationship between the preservation of place and the preservation of community memory. In many ways, they are an identity. Place is the concrete expression of community memory and old people are its vessel, or, perhaps I have that backwards. It reads both ways because it is an identity. In any case, preservation of place is more likely to occur when it retains a presence in community memory. Buildings that fall into history without those personal connections to our current lives are more at risk for destruction unless, perhaps, they exude some extraordinary beauty or character, or are associated distantly with an officially recognized event or person. The position of older people in a community as holders of memory valorizes their role when other sources of status have diminished. A comment by Scott Roden in my previous blog on memory is evidence of this, “I had an elderly friend who passed away last year–he was very influential in my life. He once told me that his job now (at 85) was to remember…”

I try to avoid nostalgia; hope the Golden Age is something in the future, not the past. I am not naïve about the dark side of the places we have created. In a folklore field school we organized several years ago to study the Bloomington Town Square, we were curious about the lack of stories told about on-the-square experiences by older African-Americans. While the town square on Saturday nights in the 40’s was truly hopping, African-Americans, we were told, were not welcome. What was, and remains, a truly central and iconic feature of the place we call Bloomington was, despite the democratic image, an exclusive environment. I like to think that has changed, but it is something we should never forget.

Gerontologists often argue in favor of a policy called “aging in place”, understanding that the personal preference of most older people is to stay put. I would agree that people need the places, for the benefits to their social and physical well-being. I would add, however, that the places need the people just as much. When people stay put, the places benefit. Preserving place and preserving people is one job, not two.

And the house? Linda and I grow old together there and I am so lucky to dwell in her love as well.

Now, as a person also trying to attract valuable older people to our wonderful community, leaving their own, this presents some professional conflicts. I am working on this question and can try to pose a resolution of this paradox in another blog.


Memory and Place as Shared Experience

May 2, 2014

As I approach 65 years on this planet, May 24, 2014, I find my dreams increasingly populated by people from my past. I’m happy to say that the dreams are uniformly pleasant, if typically inscrutable. Gerontologists tend towards a view of memory as a psychological phenomenon and I suppose these dreams are a form of memory, an interior experience. Yet, as for these people, I believe it is their “thereness” that perhaps carries the meaning, aside from any symbolic or psychological interpretation one could craft. Better said, it is their “hereness” again in my life that is the key to understanding.

In a world of individuals self-absorbed with personal growth, pop psychology, and aging as a uniquely internal experience, memory becomes equated with the self and, conversely, the loss of memory is seen as the loss of self. But there is an alternative way to view memory.

Not simply “self-serving,” memory exists in the social world as a cultural resource – a device by which people do things together. Memory doesn’t merely represent or signify me, or the group, but helps to build it, to sustain it in an active, constitutive process. This does not require us to ignore the personal uses of memory but challenges us to understand memory as it lives outside of people’s heads and, I would argue, in people’s lived, collective, and bodily experiences of place. *

Having recently attended a Reunion of the Hobart High School Class of ’67, I can report that, in these circumstances, in conversation, we sometimes quickly run out of things to say, especially when we realize our lives and political convictions may have diverged significantly. I think the pleasure I experience from these reunions is not derived from what is said, nor what we have done but from the fact that we are, once again, together in place.

So memory and, I would suggest, “sense of place” is not a psychological phenomenon that can be measured. It exists only in its manifestation, its emergence into the real world. So many concepts in gerontology – memory, attachment, home, identity, age itself – are characterized (and measured) as individual and subjective phenomena, I have to agree with philosophers who would see the very science itself as representative of the modern project of self-absorption. We see the same history in the field of disability, where disability was, and often is, seen as a quality of the person. I am happy to report this field is increasingly moving towards an understanding of the reality of disability being found not in the individual but in the relationship between the individual and the environment. Would that gerontology move in the same direction.

About memory, Molly Schuchat once told me, “It only counts if you share it.” As for being old, I would say it is not psychological metaphors that we need, but locational ones. “Oldness” is a place-based phenomenon.

 

*paragraph adapted from Elderburbia: Aging with a Sense of Place in America, 2009, p 85 ff. (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO)

 See Phil’s Adventures in May 2009 for Turning Sixty 🙂


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


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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