AGING IN PLACE: Context, Context, Context…

“Is everyone who lives in Ignorance like you?” asked Milo.
“Much worse,” he said longingly. “But I don’t live here. I’m from a place very far away called Context.” 
― Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth


Much of the conversation surrounding the concept of aging-in-place by the professionals in the field of remodeling and home design focuses on the physical or built environment. This is for good reason, obstacles to staying home are often environment-caused and it is the obvious point of entry.

Put a handrail on the stairs, install a raised toilet, and remodel a bathroom to accommodate a wheelchair; these are physical changes that can be marked off a checklist and seen as making tangible progress towards independence. Important as these accommodations are to the changing physical needs of the aging homeowner, if not done in a larger context of support, aging in place is unlikely to be successful.

I’m reminded by architect, Meda Ling, about the economic and social aspects of true “sustainability” and the humane quality of life factor, when designing for an aging population.

She notes:

…And of even greater importance to this line of thought: no matter how well an individual home may accommodate and adapt to the changing physical needs of a homeowner over time, if it does not encourage social interaction or a sense of ‘belonging’ to a supportive community- whether intentional or serendipitous – ‘aging in place’ is unlikely to be an option. One must ALWAYS consider the context of a home within the greater environs of a neighborhood or community. Are the homes sited in such a way that people are encouraged to interact and know their neighbors? How does location of a home or development relate to the greater community and access to transit options, shopping, healthcare, entertainment and passive and active recreation such that it encourages a healthy lifestyle? How do the home and the neighborhood relate to the environment – does it make sense in terms of land use, water, and air quality objectives of sustainability? I have strong reservations about the concept of ‘aging in place’ as a sustainable model for a humane quality of life. From the perspective of a site architect, I consistently find myself reminding my professional colleagues to step back and see the forest for the ‘kitchen cabinet’ selection — and ask that we consider the quality of LIFE (QOL) as the guiding principle of how we design, how we use the land, how we build. Rather than designing/building for ‘aging in place’, please consider designing/building for ‘LIVING in COMMUNITY.’

Aging in Community 

Her statement is a systems-thinking approach to designing communities which are sustainable and age-friendly. I have been discussing for some time now the aging in place paradox; which is; to be more independent—you will need to be more inter-dependent. So, when planning for aging in place the key understanding must be that it happens within a larger system of community and the goal is an increased quality of life for everyone; now and in the future.

Key to this approach is a more inclusive concept of aging seen as a pattern of change throughout the entire life-span. So, when designing for children, older adults, and those with “disabilities” (temporary or permanent), we must not consider these as separate groups of users—but rather as a spectrum of human-environment interaction. This is defined as “Inclusive Design.”

Failure to consider the contextual elements of aging in place and narrowly focusing on remodeling as the solution is flirting with disaster. Building with beautiful Universal Design in isolation can be inspiring in the short run, but shortsighted in the long run.



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