The Future is Intergenerational, Integrated Community Housing
Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) are setting seniors aside. And they have been doing so with great intentionality for the past 20 years. The theory behind the evolution of the CCRC is not without merit. Building facilities with readily accessible services to support seniors; designing facilities with barrier free concepts at the forefront rather than an afterthought or retrofit; staffing facilities with trained personal ready to assist at a moment's notice; gathering peers for social benefits; all are worthy goals which we should pursue and have greatly improved the condition of seniors living in North America. Conceptually, a complex of facilities designed for all the wishes of a retiree community appears to be a spectacular idea – effectively, an everyday resort for seniors. Nonetheless, with this great pursuit of finding utopia for seniors, society has placed its seniors outside of 'regular' everyday life.
The reasons for partitioning our seniors in communities on the edge of town are also not surprising. The realities of today's families are complex. From single parent families, to two full time jobs, to travel, to sports, music, artistic and other pursuits of children and all the myriad of demands on a family – making sure that grandma is cared for on a daily basis is a responsibility that is reasonably transferred to a pay-for-service provider or government. Families want the reassurance that their loved one is in a safe and caring facility and that the community meets the idyllic picture in their mind's eye. For profit or not-for-profit organizations are able to purchase developable parcels of land in suburban communities which meet the reassurance requirements of families.
Unfortunately, 'peace-of-mind' in reality has translated to 'out-of-sight, out-of-mind'. Unintentionally, for the most part, society has devalued seniors. Seniors do not typically measure up to society's valuation scorecard. Productivity, activity, multi-tasking, wealth generation, celebrity, etc., tend to diminish as an individual ages. An effective senior is one who is able to accomplish what a younger person can do. Essentially, acting younger is a measure of success. Bill Thomas, founder of the Eden Alternative and the Green House is perhaps the foremost thinker on this subject. In his words, we should modify the concept of 'aging' to another stage of life called 'elderhood'. In this simple gesture, society would no longer need to evaluate seniors based on their diminished abilities to accomplish the tasks of adulthood and would be able to define a new set of values for the stage of life known as 'elderhood'. In essence, changing the scorecard. Cultures all around us and in our recent past are great examples of integrating elders into the fabric of society. Native or First Nation cultures have long standing traditions of elders as storytellers, passing on the wisdom of generations to the youth and adults. A valuable senior is not the one who can run a marathon or who loves the adventures of bungee jumping or whitewater rafting ((if they wish to, no problem); rather it is in passing on values and life lessons and skills to those that follow – mentorship, if you will. The scorecard for the valuable elder is the elder who has meaningful relationships with others and across generations.
If we (society, that is) believe in valuing the wisdom of seniors, there are perhaps two reasons to do so – first, for the benefit of the current and next generations. These generations, as in the past, have much to share but have seemingly less opportunity to do so and are perhaps are asked less often. Second, for the benefit of the generation of elders – giving them an opportunity to contribute and be meaningfully involved in the lives of others. On the basis of these assumptions (that it is worthwhile to engage seniors with other generations) then designers should consider opportunities for creating interactions. Intentional opportunities for 'collisions' with other generations, built into the design of our communities, will enhance the chances for sharing stories, building relationships, and changing values.
Sharing services for all members of the community is one method to design interaction into the life of the future integrated intergenerational community. Rather than exclusive hair salons, coffee shops, ice cream parlors and gift shops for the CCRC – open and integrate these services with the entire community. Better yet, integrate the seniors housing facilities into barrier free neighborhoods with readily available services located in close proximity. Walkable communities with grocery, bakery, pharmacy, doctors and dentists, coffee shops and the like – reminiscent (but not recreations) of small towns of another time – start to make logical sense in developing these communities. Not from the point of view of nostalgia, but from the concept of accessibility and integration.
Building stronger communities – a mantra we have often heard, perhaps from our political leaders – is a goal worth pursuing. Perhaps it refers to building community centres or recreation facilities, sometimes it refers to infrastructure like roads and public transit – but ultimately, the goal is relationship building for the purpose of mutual support. A strong society is one where the value of each individual is understood and appreciated. A strong society is one where service to each other is valued and encouraged. But this should not be interpreted as a one-way street. Our seniors should not be perceived to be only requiring service. Rather, although they may require assistance with the activities of daily living or other supports, there is a tremendous resource of available wisdom and experience ready to be accessed and channelled if we give the opportunity and value the contributions we are all able to make – including the frail elderly.
Designing for universal access is a prerequisite to creating an environment of interaction between generations. Simple design issues can be significant barriers to elderly community members' ability to have social interaction with peers or other community members. Community design must allow for:
- Barrier free curb cuts
- Wide paved walking paths (1.8 metre minimum)
- Frequent opportunities to rest / sit
- Narrow street crossings for pedestrians
- Engaging street life with frequent opportunities for activity
- Barrier free access to buildings
- Weather protection and shelter
- Building design that meets or exceeds current code for barrier free access
The bottom line is that, in order for community to be fostered, we need to continually assess and actively remove barriers to the freedom of movement – creating an environment where intergenerational collisions have the opportunity to occur.
Community planners today are re-evaluating North American car culture from a sustainability and community development point of view. Architects and developers of seniors housing and long-term care facilities have re-examined the institutional design of our care and housing projects. Politicians and city leaders are promoting community projects for health, wellness, and social interaction. With the momentum of the baby boomer generation moving into elderhood it is opportune to bring these ideas together – to foster intergenerational integrated community housing; to change how we value seniors and to build relationships amongst the generations.
by Jerald D. Peters, Architect, AAA, AIBC, MAA, OAA, SAA, MRAIC, LEED® AP, Principal at ft3
Jerald Peters brings more than 18 years of experience creating vibrant, functional spaces, and has provided leadership and technical expertise on an extensive array of projects in healthcare, institutional, housing, commercial, and religious environments.