Building for Boredom

The current design solutions for our older citizens drive them crazy.

Neat, one-story houses with well-clipped lawns line the winding streets in this South Jersey retirement community. Others like it are popping up in the area with alarming frequency, creating lucrative business opportunities for those who serve the elderly. With names like Holiday City and Leisure Village, these developments are designed for people who once had active lives and now are looking for a retirement of ease and comfort, but end up awaiting the final and inevitable chapter, often alone. They have moved to this segregated settlement, perhaps in search of peace and quiet, perhaps to experience the dying American Dream of a little house in a bucolic suburb.

Each serviceable house, with its protective roof-overhang and generous windows, is fronted by a garage and entered via a front stoop. Those who live there are dependent on their cars for every move. Yet as the retirement years slip by, many can no longer drive, or are a danger to themselves and others when they do.

Each time I visit the house my parents left to my sister and me I ask the cab driver for updates on what’s happening in the community: There was an accident on this corner, where a resident wrapped her car around the tree. There was a head-on collision with this particular cab at another corner, where the woman in the oncoming car pressed down the gas pedal while she seemed distracted by something she saw in her lap. (I mention women, because many who move here as couples end up as widows, meaning women easily outnumber the men.) But the most frequent and alarming report is about those many trips to liquor stores, about driving drunk passengers to and from this dreary task. 

Here, then, is suburban planning for loneliness, boredom, isolation, segregation, lack of independence; including hard-to-access homes for those who use a cane or a wheelchair. When will we finally be ready to retire the old American Dream? When will we fully commit ourselves to drawing up a new covenant that brings people of all ages, incomes, and abilities in close proximity to one another and the services they require? When will our developers understand that people need people, that the generations need one another, and that life at any age isn’t about watching where the ambulance will stop on your street this time?

Nov 14, 2013 10:20 am
 Posted by  Richard S Rosen

November 11, 2013 Building for Boredom, A Response
Dear Ms. Szenasy,
Your description of your parents’ senior community offers the opportunity to discuss the design of environments for seniors within a larger context. In contrast to the more suburban, sterile community you describe, there is a groundswell of activity by architects, designers, planners and developers to create housing and communities for seniors that will stimulate and energize their lives while providing nurturing and supportive services particularly geared towards the aging adult.

Organizations such as the New York Academy of Medicine, Leading Age, The American Institute of Architects, the American Society for Aging, and even AARP have invested serious efforts in developing models of housing and community design that will allow people to age-in-place with independence and dignity.

More importantly, however, there is a critical recognition that our elders need to be connected to life and activity. Many communities are being developed with proximity to cultural, medical, and retail facilities. Rather than mind-numbing, these communities are based on a wellness model that encourages exercise and fitness, life-long learning and inter-generational opportunities and programs.
This past May, the New York AIA Design for Aging Knowledge Community conducted a charrette, Booming Boroughs, which studied 5 aspects of New York City’s housing stock to determine how it could be made even more responsive to the needs of aging adults. An exhibition of the results is planned for January, 2014 at AIANYC.

In a similar way, our organizations have been developing plans for an affordable independent senior living community located in the heart of a major town in Fairfield County, CT. This project would be within steps of an existing senior center, as well as within short walks of the shopping , healthcare, and cultural institutions of the town. It will also allow residents to remain in their community, downsizing from large suburban homes to affordable age-in-place apartments. There are many similar projects being developed throughout the country.

We would welcome the opportunity to begin a dialogue with you and Metropolis to expand the knowledge and understanding of the range of progressive design solutions being developed for seniors. It is only through sharing of this kind of information that a true change can occur.
Respectfully,
Richard S. Rosen, AIA
Perkins Eastman Architects
Caroline Vary, The Jonathan Rose Companies
Rachel Rangelov, Watermark Communities

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