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.


Questioning Received Truths

September 20, 2010

Recently, I had the privilege of sitting in with a group of Kansas City elders as they discussed their concerns with the declining attendance at their respective senior centers. These wise folks are the advisors to the staff and leaders among their peers. They felt they offered decent programs, though admitted the luncheon fare was pretty uninspired. One old guy, only partly in jest, suggested, “We have a few dollars to work with. Why don’t we pay a few people to come in and play cards?”

I asked what brought them to their centers. To a person, their involvement was centered on creating a good program for those other old people. They didn’t come to get something for themselves, but to give to other people. I offered the modest suggestion that perhaps that’s a motivation that might drive others there. I suggested, “Why not think of a senior center as a place where elders come to give, not to take?”

A few weeks later I was pleased to hear that, following the discussion, one of the center directors organized a volunteer food bank event at her center and was thrilled at the participation.

Sometimes, turning something on its head produces surprisingly useful results. I believe this is a learned skill and that our organizations need to cultivate this practice. Actually, it may not be a learned skill as much as a process of unlearning – of deliberately abandoning our preconceptions in order to see things through a different lens. I remember the apocryphal tale of the moving truck that got stuck under the railroad overpass, stopping traffic for blocks and creating a minor crisis. Firefighters, traffic cops and engineers stood around trying to figure out how to extricate the truck from the bridge. “Concrete saws?” one asked. “No, levers and jacks”, another suggested. A shy little boy on his bike hovered around the margin of the crowd. Finally he stepped forward and asked, “Why don’t you let the air out of the tires?”

What can an organization do to incorporate this practice into the routine, to question received truths on a regular basis?

Listen deeply.

Observe closely.

Employ culture brokers (people who love to cross boundaries).

Exploit diversity (fight against monoculture).

Embrace the opposite.

Explore the absurd.

Play with words.

Wear your ideas inside out.

Humor yourself.

Develop kaleidoscopic vision.

Act the fool.

Play “what if…?”

In our field of aging studies and practice, a few examples come to mind:

“What if we saw not age but good food as a fundamental glue bringing people together?

               Mather’s Café  http://www.matherlifeways.com/iyc_mathersmorethanacafe.asp

“What if we saw Alzheimer’s not as a disease but as a disrupted relationship?”

               The Memory Bridge http://www.memorybridge.org/

“What if we stopped talking about transportation and started talking about mobility?”

               Walkable, livable communities

“What if we stopped talking about disabled people and started talking about disabling environments?”

               Universal design

Got any of your own?


Walking as a Narrative Activity

May 11, 2010

In response to an earlier blog (March 15), friend Lyman Orton, founder of the Vermont Country Store, picked up on my comment about remembering old ladies and their small grocery carts coming home from the Jewel Tea store in my neighborhood. “Are these things still for sale somewhere?”, I asked.  Well, indeed they are, and it’s no surprise that the Vermont Country Store is the place to find them, visit the catalogue here and voila’ . 

The Vermont Country Store is the source for much of the “good” from the good old days. While nostalgia is fun, the store sells more than nostalgia. Simpler toys,simpler appliances, simpler (and often organic) products are the store’s stock in trade. For Lyman, and his family, the Vermont Store has come to represent an attitude towards life and an attitude towards community that values local activism, livability, and philanthropy. Indeed, the Orton Family Foundation has heavily invested in citizen participation planning initiatives that tap what Lyman calls the “heart and soul” of the community. (See Orton Family Foundation) Not just for the sake of pitching clothes lines in his catalogue, Lyman is also at the front of the “right to dry” campaign, which fights against covenants and ordinances banning clothes lines from backyards. In light of our national energy/environmental crisis, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could wish away the sight and smell and fresh air experience of hanging clothes in the springtime breeze. I should mention, I suppose, that you can also find those great old wooden clothespins in the catalogue, you know… the ones with the metal spring (which, as a kid, we reversed to create neat matchstick guns). You can even order pins printed with the “right to dry” slogan!

Now those little grocery carts don’t work too well if there are no good sidewalks. How is it that sidewalks came to be seen as “amenities” rather than part of the essential community infrastructure. Nowadays, we have to incentivize developers to include sidewalks on both sides of the street. I guess that’s a step (backward) in the right direction, but it galls me that we have to reward behavior that should be expected.

But a sidewalk is, after all, a means to an end, a conveyance. We should also consider, as we think about the quality of our communities, whether the sidewalk leads to valued destinations and, perhaps more importantly for people with time (elders and children) the sidewalk provides the journey. Walking, and maybe I should say strolling, whether on foot or in a chair can be a rich narrative experience. As we walk, the surrounding environment, built and natural, becomes part of our sensuous world. Being physically open to the world, we see, we smell, we hear, we feel, we belong in a way not experienced in the automobile. The time it takes to move through the environment enables us to reflect, remember, retell the story of the neighborhood to ourselves. Over the years, I’ve watched that root gradually lift the pavement; I remember that old lady in the bonnet who used to live there and tend to her flowers; I recall with pain the cinders that would grind into your knees when you fell off your bike in the alley; I react  with fear at the house where my friend’s mean Dad was taken away in the police car, his mother on the porch bruised and sobbing.

Years ago, I came across an essay by Michel de Certeau called “Walking in the City.” (In the Practice of Everyday Life, 1984) He noted that people in positions of power (city authorities, planners, developers) tend to be enamored of the “birdseye” view of the city. Their grand maps, looking from above, are a testament to their control, to their ascension. Yet, the meaning of the city, the story (text) of the city, the life of the city  is produced by people walking. This is how the city is truly inhabited. As William H. Whyte said, “the meaning of a place is a product of the users, not the planners.” As I see it, the first step in planning and creating good places to grow old (and grow up) is a literal one – a step along the sidewalk.

Awhile back we invited kids in the local public housing complex to “walk the neighborhood” with us. Before we started, we had the kids draw maps of their neighborhood and, typically, we saw “elevation” maps – as if you were standing on the street and looking out. After walking the neighborhood, the kids began relating to the birdseye view. They were “ascending” to power, if you will, and beginning to see the larger context of connections among the parts. This is a good thing, where citizens understand that “maps have teeth”,  in the words of geographer Doug Aberley, and take back the human cartographic impulse  from the professional mapmakers, who haven’t done such a good job designing our towns lately.


Georgia for a Lifetime

December 2, 2009

I had the privilege yesterday of going down to Macon, Georgia to speak and learn – learn about the terrific work that the Georgia Council on Aging is doing to create communities for a lifetime and speak about the also terrific work going on in Indiana communities planning for the coming demographic changes. Cherylle Schramm, Council chair, and Kathryn Fowler, exec. director of the initiative, introduced this daylong conference attended by 150 policy makers, elected and appointed governtment officials at all levels, aging service providers, and advocates and activists from around the state. Demographer Warren Brown provided a fascinating overview of Georgia’s historical and future population changes and subsequent speakers addressed the multiple implications, ranging across all sectors of life and the economy – transportation, housing, health and health care, and local government. Good friend Kathryn Lawler, of the Atlanta Regional Commission, inspired the audience to entertain some radical and transformational ways of re-engineering communities that, currently fail to meet the needs of those who don’t own automobiles – an issue affecting not only those in congested Atlanta metro but also those in rural Georgia. She provided some glimpses into the February 09 charrette conducted by the famous architectural firm DPZ for six Atlanta neighborhoods. The charrettes produced six fascinating development scenarios for making these places truly elder-friendly. While the recession has stalled development plans in every one of the focus areas, the plans will, I am sure, eventually reach fruition.

With my colleague Mia Oberlink, we presented an overview of Indiana’s leading edge efforts to create more livable communities throughout the state, employing the AdvantAge Initiative planning model. I had an opportunity to announce some proposed legislation under development by State Senator Vi Simpson – Hoosier Communities for a Lifetime. The legislation would establish a permanent commisson that, in its first year, would create a protocol for Indiana communities to achieve formal designation and, down the line, apply for funding for transformational projects to create age-friendly communities.

The slide program provided for the Georgia conference can be found at http://www.agingindiana.org

best, Phil


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