Environments for Aging
In April, The Center for Health Design (CHD) in conjunction with Vendome Group, LLC, launched, with great success, the first annual Environments for Aging conference in Baltimore, Maryland. It was attended by the who's who in the world of designing for the elderly—architects, designers, facility administrators, and more. Since this is not my specialty, I attended every event with a great thirst for knowledge. My takeaway was that this is not a subspecialty, but a mainstream objective for designing a quality of life for all at any age. Like the American with Disabilities Act, this topic needs illumination to make all buildings public and private universal in design. It is a wake-up call for all who design.(Yes, I said “all”—architects, interior designers, landscape designers, industrial designers, graphic designers, engineers, town planners, etc.)
Later, I was pleasantly surprised to open the May 6, 2007, edition of The New York Times Magazine to find the whole issue dedicated to “The Longer Better Life,” to quote one of the articles. The issue was driven primarily by baby boomers—those born in 1946 and 1947 have now turned 60. In a humor piece entitled “The Older Woman,” there was a funny but true interview with Nora Ephron where she is asked, “At what point do you think a person is officially old?”—a good question for a baby boomer who has turned sixty! She responds, “There's a moment when people know—whatever their skills are at denial—that they have passed from what they can delude themselves into thinking is middle age to something that you can call the third act. I'm definitely in the third act.”
This is the point that the discussion evolved to at Environments for Aging. The goal is designing for a generation or two of active, vibrant, somewhat compromised individuals who do not want the impediments of the built environment to slow them down or worse, to shut them in. CHD President Debra Levin opened the conference with a YouTube clip of an elderly U.K. band known as the Zimmers. The ages of the members of the group range from the late 60s to over 100; some were shut-ins, or in substandard nursing care facilities. They were pulled together to do a music video—a lively, humorous cover of the Who's “My Generation,”—to raise money for the cause. Their point is clear: all ages have a right to independence, fun, and expression.
The conference engaged local officials from the City of Baltimore. Mayor Shelia Dixon followed Debra with a wonderful explanation of Baltimore's commitment to becoming a “Livable City.” With a consciousness at that level, the programs launched lively discussions about the many design components that are in need of understanding the issues relative to urban aging.
Keynote speaker Patti Moore's one-act stage production began a heartfelt discussion about the personal struggles of those seniors who want to maintain independence. William Novelli, CEO of AARP, also addressed the group, talking about the social impact agenda his organization has for its 38 million members worldwide, half of whom are still working. He also discussed AARP's model communities program, which addresses the elderly's fear of losing their independence.
The conference closed with a Town Hall discussion moderated by John Stewart, Executive Director, Baltimore City Commission on Aging and Retirement Education. Attendees voiced their opinions and conversed about six topics that Stewart identified from the conference, including: developing public-private partnerships, expanding in-home services to meet the needs of the baby boom generation, creating affordable housing, environment's importance to aging, using evidence-based design, and the environment's role in health and well-being.
Returning to my takeaway, that this is not a subspecialty but a mainstream objective for designing a quality of life for all, at any age: Think about your projects and who will occupy them. Are you well-versed in what it takes to maintain independence for this ever-growing population? Is your city liveable, perhaps even attractive to empty-nesters? Are your residential colleagues designing with the same level of consciousness to maintaining an independent population? I learned a great deal at Environments for Aging, and I suggest you all put this topic on your radar screen. I suspect next year's conference will be something you will not want to miss. I know I will be there again to measure my progress on the ways I am designing for this vibrant generation.
Welcome to a new generation! HD