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Do We Stereotype Aging?

As we celebrate “Older Americans Month” in May, we must recognize that the world of elderly care and housing is rapidly changing as is reflected in the rash of recent organizational name changes: American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging is now LeadingAge; Assisted Living Federation of America is now Argentum; Continuing Care Retirement Communities are now referring to themselves as “Life Plan Communities”; even American Association of Retired Persons is simply AARP.

Why the de-emphasis on “aging”? We are moving away from stereotyping aging, age-restricted communities and the negative connotations of aging. We are also realizing that we, as a changing and evolving society, are redefining what aging, retirement and living in an elderly care environment really means.

Along with name changes, the design approach by architects must adapt to changing consumers and society’s changing definition of aging. We have traditionally designed environments based on the broad, stereotyped target market, instead of thinking about the individuals who will live or work in a space. These environments and the individuals who choose to inhabit them have changed significantly over the past three decades and will continue to change as society works to meet the needs of the retiring baby boomer generation.While consumers are demanding more of the built environment, the availability of qualified staff to provide care services is shrinking, creating more demand on that environment.

Providers are rushing and struggling to adapt to the changes on the horizon. Architects are leading thought processes that will provide new models of care and housing as well as pushing the envelope regarding the definition of elder care environments. They understand how to create spaces which not only serve as comfortable and efficient workplaces, but are also aesthetically pleasing homes and places for social interaction.

Regardless of age, everyone likes to live in vibrant surroundings. This may involve community. However, vibrancy may be defined as easily attained services, both necessary and desired; cultural and physical amenities which enhance our quality of life; and an environment which is designed for versatility and changes as one moves through life’s timeline. We want to continue to thrive intellectually, spiritually and physically and thus expect our communities to include wellness centers, cultural offerings, religious opportunities, meditation rooms and a variety of dining venues which provide ample opportunity to interact socially over food and drink.

We are working long past the typical ages of previous generations, either out of necessity or a desire to continue in business in retirement. Our “Life Plan Communities” are now beginning to include business centers or areas which serve as office spaces. Additionally, electronic connectivity has become important not only for residents, but for staff working to provide high quality care and for family members who want to remain connected, if only through the Internet. Often this connectivity takes place in a Starbucks-like coffee shop on the premises that also promotes social interaction.

Perhaps most important is to design environments, particularly long-term care environments, as a true home for residents. Spaces must include enough room for familiar furniture and accessories, a full bathroom for privacy and dignity even when staff assistance is necessary, a pleasing exterior view where the changing seasons can be enjoyed, a consistent staff and small groups or “families” of residents, and a logical, intuitive floor plan that emulates one’s own home layout.

As architects, we first owe a quality comprehensive design to the residents of our built environments that enhances their quality of life regardless of age. We must shed stereotypes and focus on individuals. We must foster community in our designs and opportunities for residents to continue their connection to that community. Regardless of what we call our organizations or our stages of life, we must eliminate the traditionally drawn lines that define those stages.

Jeffrey Anderzhon, FAIA

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