Our failure to create more meaningful communities for aging in place
If it takes a village to age in place, what happens if there is no village? What happens if there is a sort of neo-village that doesn't function like a real one? With the largest generation in American history now in our late 50s and 60s, this is not a small question: the number of senior citizens is expected to double by 2030. And shouldn't those of us who care about sustainability, about the way places affect our physical health, also be thinking about how they affect our mental health, our spirit?
We know that single-use subdivisions don't work for seniors beyond a certain point, particularly beyond their driving years - or, alarmingly, the years when they should no longer be driving but are, because it's the only way to meet needs and participate in society.
So we create "retirement communities" and "rest homes" and the like, leading up to assisted living and nursing homes. As the son of a 92-year-old mother with serious health problems, it's a world I've come to know well. In my mother's current condition, a better, mixed-age, walkable community wouldn't help. But a decade ago, it would have.
The failure of our current senior communities is the subject of an award-winning documentary by Sari Gilman, reviewed yesterday in The Atlantic Cities by Lisa Selin Davis. This prompted me to look for (and find) a trailer or other excerpt that I could show here. But first, here's how the film's official site introduces it to us:
"With Kings Point, director Sari Gilman tells the stories of five seniors living in a typical American retirement resort—men and women who came to Florida decades ago with their spouses by their sides and their health intact, and now find themselves grappling with love, loss and the desire for human connection. A bittersweet look at our national obsession with self-reliance, Kings Point explores the dynamic tension between living and aging—between our desire for independence and our need for community—and underscores our powerful ambivalence toward growing old."
Davis expands the point, relating the theme of loneliness to architecture and neighborhood design:
"The physical structure of the retirement community model as pictured in Kings Point, which tends to include age-segregated housing facilities, is at best unsustainable (two-story condos were built without elevators, a design flaw that had to be fixed at great expense as the residents aged). At worst, it’s an architecture of endemic loneliness. We watch as the four women and one man who are the subjects of Gilman’s film experience the kind of isolation that these developments promised to eradicate."
Here's a trailer:
The 30-minute version is available here. I can't say what the answer really is, and I wish I could. I know it's important.
- How walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods help seniors (June 5, 2012)
- EPA invites communities to apply for awards for active aging and smart growth strategies (March 8, 2011)
- Smart growth and active aging: EPA’s informative new guide (August 21, 2009)
- Streets for seniors: a video look at issues and remedies (July 1, 2009)
- It takes a village to age in place (October 17, 2008)
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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in the national media. For more posts, see his blog's home page. Please also visit NRDC’s sustainable communities video channels.
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