Ageing – separately or in communities?

Thought provoking!

Since the 1960s, there has been a steady increase in the development of environments built specifically for older people including retirement housing, continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs), memory care centers, and assisted living facilities.  This occurred because economic development made long life more common. But while this demographic shift was occurring, enormous growth in suburban sprawl created low-density communities, and health care for elders evolved into a facility-based model. Now, the only places designed to accommodate old age are specialized facilities and neighborhoods separated from the rest of the population. Is this a new form of segregation? Does it reflect “ageism” in American society?


Perhaps the best example of this segregation is The Villages, an age-restricted community north of Orlando where 75,000 people have settled…..

While demand for age-restricted settings may continue to be strong for some groups in the older population simply due to the rapidly increasing numbers of elders, a major focus for “design for aging” should be on rethinking existing communities in response to the maturation of society. We need to start planning and designing communities that will keep elders engaged in productive life, provide affordable housing options, insure safety and security, offer attractive leisure time pursuits, encourage diverse social opportunities, and support age related changes in abilities and health. We need to practice community design for aging. The Atlanta Regional Commission’s (ARC) Lifelong Community Design Initiative, featured in another article on this website, is one of the first efforts to really look at how to redesign existing communities and serves as a good model.

How do we transfer the knowledge about design for aging to this much larger and more complex problem? I believe the answer is by practicing universal design. Many design professionals think universal design is a new buzzword for accessible design or ADA compliance. Earlier definitions and publications about the concept did not help to overcome this perception because they were too focused on design to support function. But it is actually a radically different concept. Universal design applies all the lessons learned over the last 50 years about human-centered design to all environments, products, and services. It is not the province of technical specialists or experts in a specialized building type.

“Universal design is a process that enables and empowers a diverse population by improving human performance, health and wellness, and social participation.” (Steinfeld and Maisel, 2012). In other words, universal design is design for universal benefits, including, but not limited to, benefits for elders. In addition to compensating for deficits in function like accessibility in housing, it includes reducing health threats like air and water pollution, encouraging walking by building sidewalks and safer street crossings, and promoting social participation like providing opportunities for intergenerational social contact.

Designing settings for elders alone leads to socially unsustainable communities.

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