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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Our failure to create more meaningful communities for aging in place

Kaid Benfield

Posted October 4, 2012

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  seniors in Chicago (by: Kate Gardiner, creative commons)

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:


Kings Point trailer from Sari Gilman on Vimeo.

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.

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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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Elizabeth ReeceOct 4 2012 08:22 PM

Read your blog. Interesting to us. My husband and I have been thru six family events with the elderly. Everyone very different. No such thing as typical ageing.
As a senior, trying to find ways to reduce expenses and send money to the children and grandchild.

Patrick J. RodenOct 4 2012 10:27 PM

Every form of refuge has its price.
-The Eagles

Jon ReedsOct 8 2012 10:29 AM

A very timely post.
Across the Atlantic in England, the government is pushing for big increases in greenfield housing sprawl on the basis it would revive the economy and because of high projections of growth in household numbers.
Always the demand is for "family homes", but analysis of the household projections shows the big growth in household numbers will be among the over-55s, including single people.
Meanwhile, the ideal dwelling for the elderly is seen as some kind of "family home" despite the fact youngsters cannot get themselves on the housing ladder and one estimate said the UK has 25 million unoccupied spare bedrooms.
We plainly need a new approach for the growing elderly population, but what? Well-designed, flexible "grey ghettoes" that avoid the isolation of suburban living? Or would this bring its own problems?
What would a Smart Growth approach entail? This is a debate we urgently need.

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