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


Making Aging Sexy

October 6, 2011

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.


Sustaining your Impact: Can you answer the “in order to” question?

July 8, 2011

Isn’t it great working in the not-for-profit universe? Our clients tell us we are wonderful. Our professional organizations spend much effort in annual ceremonies of self-congratulation. Our mothers tell their friends how proud they are. The work itself provides ample personal rewards for the good that we do. All well and good, as it should be. But there are dangers out there! With these factors propping us up, we risk becoming complacent about our agency’s position in the hierarchy of local organizations.

It’s not enough to know that we are good. We have to ask ourselves if those who have a stake in our organization’s future agree and act on our behalf. Developing a plan for sustainability comes down to a few basic questions that must be answered:

Instead of asking “are we good?” ask “what is our impact?”

Instead of asking “how can we sustain our program?” ask, “how can we sustain our impact”?

Who really has a stake in these impacts and how can they help?

Assessing impact is, essentially, program evaluation. You are trying to assemble evidence regarding the change that has occurred as a result of your actions and arranging for audiences who will be convinced by the argument.  You are trying to answer the “in order to” question: “We do what we do in order to…” and then trying to prove the connection works.

Some of your stakeholders may have high standards regarding the evidence they need to see that you are producing the outcomes you claim. Other audiences may be persuaded by softer criteria, individual stories of people whom you have helped, for example. When tying your sustainability plan to the interests of your stakeholders, peg your investment in evaluation to the stakeholders’ expectations. In reality, you may have several different groups of stakeholders (or even individual stakeholders) whose support you need. Hence, your evaluation products might vary and target different audiences.

The line between evaluation and marketing can become rather thin, but never eschew integrity or honesty in communicating what you do. Make valid claims. Qualify them as needed when they don’t demonstrate the standards of “evaluation science.” If you are using stories, great, but don’t claim that’s what happens every time. Use stories that 1) illustrate the kinds of situations you address, 2) how to think about them and 3) how your understanding of those situations drives the work. What you are constructing is a picture of your organization for people who need to understand what you are trying to do.

One last thought… think about impact in two ways:

1)     What is your positive impact?

2)     What would happen if you did nothing or your agency went away?  (the Tea Party threat)

and through two lenses…

1)     What is your impact on the lives of individuals?

2)     What is the impact on the neighborhood or community?

If you can construct an argument that, not only are you helping individuals, but that the surrounding community benefits, so much the better. Helping elders age in place with home modifications and repairs can help stabilize home values in the neighborhood. See the thinking here?

I’ll touch on the issue of sustainability in future blogs as well.


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