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


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.


“Old people everywhere.”

March 11, 2011

This little op-ed appeared in the Bloomington, IN Herald-Times on Saturday, March 5, 2011.

Planning policy: ‘Old people everywhere’

Special to the H-T
March 5, 2011

This guest column is by Phil Stafford, director of the Center on Aging and Community, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, and Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University.

Architect and planner Christopher Alexander is an inspired thinker who has greatly influenced the way we think about the world we are building. He and his colleagues have created a compendium of “design principles” which manifest the timeless way of building.

“There is one timeless way of building. It is a thousand years old, and the same today as it has ever been. The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the center of this way. It is not possible to make great buildings, or great towns, beautiful places, places where you feel yourself, places where you feel alive, except by following this way. And, as you will see, this way will lead anyone who looks for it to buildings which are themselves as ancient in their form, as the trees and hills, and as our faces are.” (The Timeless Way of Building, 1979)

“Old people everywhere” is a seminal design principle that describes communities that, alas, are often only remembered. Yet, one need only go back to pre-1950 suburban tract communities to find places where people of all ages lived, worked, schooled and played together. Some of these features still describe certain core neighborhoods in Bloomington and, let me tell you, these neighborhoods are treasured by their residents.

Yet, many of the actions which can be taken to create livable neighborhoods for all ages are, to put it bluntly, illegal in many areas of the city. Mixing retail, medical services and housing; mixing house types; accessory dwellings; shared housing; reduced parking requirements — are a few among the many tools that progressive communities can use to promote livable neighborhoods for all ages — neighborhoods that support productivity, walkability, accessibility and sociability across the lifespan. Instead, as has happened throughout the U.S., we have made these actions illegal and, as a consequence, have produced homogeneous “Peter Pan” communities that separate the generations and make it virtually impossible to age in place when one no longer drives.

One current proposal pending before the Bloomington Plan Commission would attempt to reverse the trend of marginalizing elders through a strategy of infill development (Renwick/Cardon) and create a continuum of support in the context of a mixed-use, new urban community. A good thing. On the other hand, I do wish this project had considered this from the beginning and involved all potential residents in developing a vision for such a model, accompanied by public policy incentives that would make such a project feasible for the developer. This project would look much different and better balanced, I suspect. I would like to live in a community where this is not a naive position.

Old people, and I count myself as one who looks forward to old age, offer much to the neighborhoods they inhabit. They increase the security of a neighborhood for they are often around during the day and aware of what’s going on, contribute to the beauty of neighborhoods by keeping things up, want to be around persons of all ages, are more likely to shop locally, and have more loyalty to local restaurants and businesses, bring richness of experience and storied lives to a place.

As the Kung San of the Kalahari desert say “Old people give you life.”

As a 7-year-old who had the privilege of visiting with an ancient Mrs. Culbertson on her porch swing across my street, I have to ask what parent in the world would not want his or her child to have the opportunity to develop a meaningful relationship with an old person. When old people are everywhere, we all benefit.


Redefining Prosperity

December 7, 2010

 

Live long and prosper

Vulcan salute

If I were to fulfill Mr. Spock’s blessing to “live long and prosper”, I guess I would die a rich old man.

Somehow, however, that dream feels a little hollow. Yet, it’s at the core of the American economy, right? We are told that we depend on people getting rich to create the jobs that fuel increased consumption and continued economic growth. And staying young forever is, of course, the desired state of every baby boomer consumer, according to Madison Avenue.

I have a growing suspicion that the prospects for every American to enjoy riches are as dim as the prospect that we can all live to 120. Acknowledging the reality of one’s own mortality is the first step to understanding what it means to age well. Acknowledging the reality of our economic limits can be the first step to a new definition of prosperity.

As this year’s fabulous Community Matters ’10 conference was held in Denver, I had an opportunity to meet planners, government officials, and resident activists from multiple small towns in the Mountain West and High Plains. Many of these communities are struggling economically, often due to the decline of traditional  industries (mining, logging, ranching and farming) in the face of worldwide competition. One common consequence of this trend is the departure of young people from their home communities and the subsequent increase in older age-density, creating what Dace Kramer has referred to as “naturally occurring retirement regions” (NORR’s). This has been accompanied by an influx of new retirees seeking amenities not typically provided by sunbelt retirement communities – incredible natural beauty, skiing, hiking, recreational ranching, etc. As one might guess, local economies are shifting to a “service” base as the population ages, due to both aging in place and in-migration.

While recognizing aging is a major driver of population and economic change in the New West, I have come to realize that, with respect to local economy, it’s impossible, better said, impractical, to discuss aging without reference to youth, and vice versa. If people are to age well in the New West, they need robust youth to provide services of all kinds. If communities are to provide opportunities for youth that enable them to stay put, they need the monetary investment of elders.

Seems like a simple dollars and cents issue. But it goes deeper. In the practical sense, attachment to place requires dollars and cents. For a young person, it equates to a job. For an elder, it often equates to cost of living. The converse applies to both. In a deeper sense, attachment to place is not a monetary issue. We are attached to a place because we feel we belong there. We know the place and it knows us. We nurture the place and it nurtures us.

When we reach the right place, we don’t need more because we have enough. We have loving relationships. We have the sense of fulfillment that comes from the beauty of the quiet order around us balanced by the sense of delight that comes from the unpredictable and creative spirit of nature and of youth. To appreciate what we have means we must regularly view our place from the outside, which can simply involve embracing those strangers who are our future neighbors, friends and family.

When we reach the right place, we are prosperous. Yet, we may very well be spending less, not more, which in the current scheme is anathema to our American economy. We are told that, without wealth-creation, America will become a “second-class economy.” The “new normal” means a lower standard of living. If that’s true, is this bad? These days, both young people and elders are the new pioneers in the so-called lower standard of living. Should we not notice that they are discovering the difference between standard of living and quality of life? Should we not be listening to elders who can teach us how they survived hard times and to youth who can teach us how to live more lightly on the planet?

Addendum:

Through the generous support of the Orton Family Foundation, and others, the participants in the Community Matters ’10 conference came together to explore and develop a new “heart and soul” approach to community planning. This approach is based on the belief that a slavish adherence to growth in every direction threatens the heart and soul of our communities – the things that, in the end, attach us to place and define who we are. Economic growth and quality of life are not necessarily antithetical. But a corporation is not a person (despite the Supreme Court decision) and capital is, too often, not attached to place. Planning that reveals and promotes the heart and soul of a place is essential and, indeed, many local companies are loyal to their communities and help define heart and soul. Storytelling and story sharing are critical tools for “heart and soul” practitioners. For a wealth of connections to this growing and exciting area of community planning and activism, visit the Orton website at: http://www.orton.org

Spend some time with the site and be sure to look for the Heart and Soul Community Planning Principles.


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