It’s not a vision. It’s a memory.

June 18, 2010

I had the privilege this week of observing a planning forum for Fifth Ward seniors, held at the JW Peavey Senior Center in central Houston. Programming for the predominantly African-American neighborhood is provided by the venerable Neighborhood Centers, Inc., an outstanding non-profit serving Houston for over 100 years.

Using the facilitation method known as Appreciative Inquiry, over 100 elders spent three hours reflecting on the strengths, not the weaknesses of the neighborhood. From small table workgroups they produced creative and powerful images of the kind of neighborhood that would enable individuals to remain in place as they age, typically focusing on an infrastructure that would enable people to move about with safety and security, accessing vital services and relationships with friends and family.

Though produced as a vision for the future, my friend Jane Bavineau wisely observed that the group was merely wanting to get back to the way it was, before drugs, prostitution, crime and disinvestment changed their stable, strong neighborhood.

So it’s not a vision. It’s a memory.

While it’s common, and usually a good thing, we “facilitators” of the world often engage groups in envisioning exercises to help create a template for actions that can lead to a better future. Perhaps we need to spend more time with memory. Unlike a dream, memory is based in a reality, albeit sometimes rose-colored by nostalgia. Being reality-based, moreover, the examination of memory can lead us to consider the real forces, political and economic, that led to negative (and positive) change… that led us away from home, so to speak. Asking how we arrived at this point is a worthwhile premise for discussing how we move forward. For how can we move forward without targeting the fundamental forces and power structures that keep us where we are?

This group at JW Peavey is indeed politically aware. They vote. They call their elected officials, en masse. They see that their efforts to create a good place to grow old means that everyone, all ages, will benefit.

Children have dreams. Elders have memories. How interesting that they produce a common image. How powerful  it would be to mobilize the energy of children’s dreams and the wisdom of elders’ memory to transform our communities “back to the future”.

Don’t leave yet… speaking of community planning, I want to draw your attention to several new tools recently published to our www.agingindiana.org website. With support from the Daniels Fund of Denver, Colorado, we engaged several national experts to produce tools organized around the Indiana state planning process we are coming to call Communities for a Lifetime. As access to mental health services emerged as a key issue in the Indiana AdvantAge Initiative survey, we have produced a community guidebook to enable citizens groups to learn the basics and mobilize around evidence-based solutions to improve the mental health of elders in their communities. Likewise, as many communities in Indiana are addressing home modification needs, we have produced “How to Develop a Home Modification Coalition.”  In addition, as communities begin to formulate social marketing campaigns to raise awareness about key issues, they can now take advantage of a Communications Guidebook, organized specifically around the AdvantAge Initiative’s 33 indicators of an elder-friendly community.

You might also find interesting, in the research reports, a new table illustrating similarities and differences in our survey results across urban to rural areas. And to top it off, this growing and rich resource of data for Indiana now includes GIS-producted visual images of variation across Indiana planning and service areas around some very interesting indicators – obesity, diabetes, awareness of services, etc. Check it out!

While you’re at it, visit our “founding” home page at the Center on Aging and Community, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, Indiana University, to join the Facebook group, follow tweets, and link to other Center projects and websites. See http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/index.php?pageId=31.


From Linton to LaGrange, and New York City along the way

April 27, 2010

The Clearview Gardens Housing Coop in Queens could fit the entire population of LaGrange, Indiana within its complex, with room to spare. LaGrange, Indiana (pop. about 3,000), Linton, Indiana (pop. about 5,000) and Clearview Gardens (pop. about 4,500) are worlds apart along the rural-urban continuum, but next-door neighbors when it comes to their desire to enable elders to age in place. April travels to all three sites proved to me that there are some basic commonalities driving the aging in community movement. The vast majority of seniors do want to stay put, no matter where they live; the built environment provides major challenges; grass roots creativity may be the road to the future.

In Linton, Indiana, older citizens are taking to the streets in golf carts, saving lots of money and challenging traditional notions of transportation. Our on- line survey of mobility issues in Linton barely made it in time to help inform Mayor Tom Jone’s decision to sign a new ordinance supporting but regulating the use of golf carts in town. The survey results suggested a majority of citizens approve of the growing trend, while being very much in favor of regulations around public safety. Among 239 respondents to the on-line survey, 48 were current users of golf carts to get around. Another 109 respondents agreed they will consider using a golf cart in the next ten years. Wisely, the city of Linton is getting ready! Visit www.agingindiana.org  for the survey results. 

Linton, Indiana on-line survey prize winners, Mayor Tom Jones, NORC leaders (Daily World, T. Ferree photo)

In LaGrange, Indiana, grass roots creativity found its expression in a local group of citizens concerned about elders being stuck in their homes due to mobility limitations. With the leadership of local contractor Dave Clark, a small group of folks rounded up money and supplies to establish a “ramps program” enabling 19 older and disabled citizens to get in and out of their homes with ease. In a smart twist on the usual approach, this group decided to build the ramps in sections that could be easily dismantled and reassembled as needed.

LaGrange Aging in Place Committee members ready to greet summit participants

The Clearview Gardens Cooperative Housing project dates to 1949, when the first buildings were thrown up for returning veterans, who paid $50 a room to own their units – units that now have a price tag in the $250K range! Over the decades, continued building resulted in a project that covers 88 acres and houses nearly 4,500 individuals. With aging in place, naturally, there are over 1,200 seniors living in the community. This concentration of elders was the reason that three community leaders, several years ago, sought and received designation and funding to create a formal NORC – naturally occuring retirement community. NORC funding has enable the seniors to carve out valuable community space on the site and contract with the local YMCA for a NORC supportive services program. The wonderfully talented and dedicated staff of the program (two social workers and a nurse, primarily) work closely with residents to identify and respond to individual needs as well as create a broad array of communityprograms such as screenings, cultural offerings, and healthy aging activities. Their current grant through the Administration on Aging Community Innovations for Aging in Place project, administered in the city by the Dept. of  Aging, will enable the provision of evidence-based chronic disease self-management programs.

Despite the resilience and experience of the residents and the creativity of the staff, some pretty major challenges loom ahead – there is no internal transporation on the site and every single building is fronted by several stairs. Half of the units on the site are second story. I asked one lovely lady what she would do when (oops…if) she should develop a problem with … Not letting me finish my sentence, she asserted “That won’t happen!”  While I admire her grit, I have to wonder how realistic she is about the future. And even if her assertion comes true, as I certainly wish, the basic inaccessibility of the entire project is like the elephant in the room. Some creative thinking will have to come forth, along with some big bucks, I imagine. But, like the Linton seniors taking personal transportation into their own hands, I suspect the Clearview elders will figure it out.

Here's my fellow traveler Duane Etienne, CEO Emeritus of CICOA Aging and In Home Services, at the entrace to Clearview Gardens.


Announcing Elderburbia: Aging with a Sense of Place in America

October 27, 2009

Now available: Elderburbia: Aging with a Sense of Place in America, by Philip B. Stafford, Ph.D., Praeger Press.

Elderburbia jacket cover

The work is a labor of love, reaching back to memorable encounters with amazing elders over thirty years. It argues that a deep understanding of the experience of home and place is an essential starting point for discussions about “aging in place”, which too often equate “place” with “house.”  It provides a nice introduction to the use of ethnography and participatory methods towards understanding the lifeworld of elders in Bloomington, where I live. It also provides the first book length treatment of the national movement towards elder-friendly communities. My hope is that this will provide the impetus for a serious critique of our current model of aging, which focuses primarily on the individual aging body and not on the experience of aging in community. It suggests that aging is not IN the body, but in the RELATIONSHIP between the body and its environment – which is an environment replete with meaning and memory.

Oh… and about that title:  did you know that more elders live in suburbs than in cities and towns combined?  Are suburbs very well designed for growing old?  Read the book and you’ll find out!

I hope you will find the book stimulating. If so, add a comment and let’s have a discussion !


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