5 Radical Ways Designers Can Help People Age in Place

Many homeowners share the same dream of settling into the golden years while remaining in their own homes for as long as possible. Some may choose to downsize to a smaller home or even take out a reverse mortgage to make home modifications that enable an easier retirement. However, aging in place while living in an urban environment can present some exterior challenges that small alterations can’t fix.

Baby boomers are one group that expects to be able to live at home during retirement, and most want to age in place in major cities. As a result, today’s city planners and developers are looking at urban design with a fresh eye to accommodate baby boomers.

Speaking at the Design Dialogues at the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) on September 8 in Chicago, a panel of architects, designers and analysts discussed how the baby boomers are changing major cities to ensure they can stay live independently in big cities and how developers and designers can meet their needs.

Here are five radical ways for aging in place in urban environments and how designers are helping, as outlined by the panel:

1. Adopt Universal Design

One of the key ingredients to a senior-friendly city is achieving a connection between accessibility and livability, or universal design, according to Jack Catlin, a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and architect with LCM Architects, who spoke on the panel. Catlin is also a member of the Advisory Board for the Chicago Transit Authority and worked to develop the City of Chicago’s first comprehensive accessibility code. 

As a major U.S. city, Chicago has steadily begun altering its public accommodations, transit and facilities—both new and older constructions—to provide universal design, which allows all people of all ages and ability to use products and environments in the same way. A city with universal design is easy to use, easy to understand and ensures all people can use it in the same way. Many seniors make alterations in their own homes to make it easier to get around, and cities need to envision the same approach.

One of the Chicago’s greatest examples of universal design is Millennium Park, which offers ramps and walkways that can be used by anyone, and environments that are accessible to all, regardless of their physical abilities. 

According to Catlin, universal design in cities, including within public spaces, buildings and transportation, can make a big difference for older adults and adults with disabilities and allow them to live in their homes longer with greater accessibility to their environment.  

2. Enable the Environment

There is a demand for cities to enable their environments, not detract from them, according to Peter Ellis, a city planner with New Cities in Chicago. From a senior living perspective, Ellis envisions a need for a complete street makeover that provides wide walking paths, bike lanes and storm water collection that make life on the street more accessible and enjoyable to seniors. 

Citing Chicago’s 606 trail, an elevated walking and biking path in the city’s Northwest side that stretches three miles across four neighborhoods, Ellis says enabling the environment through urban designs can influence older adults to remain in their homes longer and is something they should demand.

“The 606 is just the beginning,” he said during the dialogue. “This is why you and I might choose to live here and not be seduced by Orlando, Florida. We want to stay. Our cities have to change. We have to demand it.”

3. Make the Millennial an Ally

The call for a more accessible and environmentally-friendly city is not just a demand by older adults. Baby boomers want many of the same things from their urban environments that another generation also seems to demand, according to Ellis. Millennials, those born between the early 1980s and 2000, often have views that align with baby boomers and those who will enter retirement soon.

To make life easier in big cities, Ellis says the two generations should work together to achieve some of their goals and become “advocates for radical change.” To achieve some of the design features seniors want, including greater accessibility and livability, baby boomers could align with millennials when it comes to things like transportation hubs, connections and biking and walking lanes on city streets.

When it comes to designing new buildings, developers should also think about constructions that are easy to convert. While designing for today’s millennials, developers who create spaces that can easily transition to accommodate older adults will be better off in the long run.

4. Improve Livability

Neighborhoods should be more livable, says Shannon Guzman, a policy research senior analyst with the AARP Public Policy Institute who spoke on the CAF panel. AARP has a livability index that measures how “livable” a community really is, taking stock if the needs of all residents are met, the housing and transportation options and how much the neighborhood encourages activeness and independent living. 

For older adults, livability can be an indicator of how the services and amenities impact their lives. It’s a measure that should be taken into consideration when it comes to new constructions, says Guzman, who recommends making small changes during development phases that would make life easier for aging seniors. 

For example, increasing accessibility with specialized transportation for seniors, creating more pedestrian friendly streets and providing funding for home modifications are all things cities can do to increase livability for older adults and create better neighborhoods for people of all ages.

5. Train in Tech

With more older adults who want to age at home, more naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs) are cropping up in major cities. These communities overall tend to be high rises where the population has naturally aged to a point where mostly seniors live there, qualifying the building for certain services to allow people to continue to age in place.

Smartphones and many technology startups have enabled older adults to engage within NORCs in a variety of new ways by connecting people throughout their cities, says Susan King, principal and studio leader with Harley Ellis Devereaux, an architecture and engineering firm that has been in business for more than 100 years. 

As seniors adapt to changing technology trends, more adults are using apps to connect with other like-minded people in their cities as community members. Some of these technology-enabled NORCs even have membership fees, bartering programs and activities for seniors to get out and enjoy their cities.

Written by Amy Baxter

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