Imagine your Future-Self: Context Matters

 For me context is the key; from that comes the understanding of everything.

-Kenneth Noland

Context Matters:

The dictionary defines Context as; the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event or situation.

A man was driving up a steep and narrow mountain road. A woman was driving down the same road. As they passed each other, the woman leaned out the window and yelled, “PIG!” The man immediately leaned out his window and replied, “BITCH!” They continue on their way and as the man rounded the next corner, he crashes into a pig in the middle of the road.

The unfortunate encounter with the pig could have been avoided—provided he knew the context of the woman’s warning…

I’ve employed this old story to make a point about the importance of context in human affairs. And the concept is easily applied to aging in place.

Aging in Place is Contextual

Much of the aging-in-place talk focuses on the physical or built environment, and for good reason. Obstacles to staying home are often environment-caused and it’s the obvious point of entry.

Put a handrail on the stairs, get a raised toilet, and remodel a bathroom to accommodate a wheelchair…These are physical changes that can be marked off a check list and seen as making tangible progress. Important as these accommodations are to the changing physical needs of the aging home owner, if not done in a larger context of support, aging in place is unlikely to be successful.

I’m reminded by 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, health care, entertainment and passive and active recreation such that it encourages a healthy lifestyle? How does 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.’

Her request is a systems thinking approach. 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.

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 is lipstick-on-a-pig…Look out ahead!

Aging in Community 

Ling’s request is a “systems thinking” approach, so when planning a housing future, we must always remember that is happens within a larger system of community. The goal is to increase the Quality  of Life for EVERYONE now—>and in the future…An “Accessibility Legacy.”

A Key concept here is that AGING is not just about Old People. Rather, aging is a pattern of change throughout the entire life-span. So, when designing for children, older adults, and those with “disabilities” (temporary or permanent), don’t think of separate groups of users–but a spectrum of human-environment interaction. Something I call “Inclusive Design.”

CROSS ROADS: Gerontopia vs. Dystopia

So many of our communities around the country are at a cross roads. We can go either way; towards a GERONTOPIA of a new dawn of positive aging–or a DYSTOPIA of a gray dawn and aging crisis. Let’s unpack the DYSTOPIAN future elements first and see what could threaten many of our aging communities. These will be characterized as “PIGS” in road of our future selves. 

Baby boomers are the first suburban generation. They grew up in the cul-de-sac safety of the 1950’s and they are staying put. For many (70%) will be aging in suburban and rural environments. This will be a challenge for our aging society in the following ways:


Pig #1

Suburbs / Rural Living


~Car-Centric Bedroom communities

PROBLEM: Physically and Socially Isolating

Pig #2

“Our Environments Presume Youth”

-Laura Cartensen PhD

Stanford Center on Longevity

~Decaying Housing Stocks; 38% of Housing Stocks >45years old

~Only 1% of U.S. housing units have all 5 of what are called “universal design” features: no-step entry; single-floor living; extra-wide doorways and halls; accessible electrical controls and switches and lever-style door and faucet handles.

PROBLEM: Accessibility

Pig #3

Difficulty Accessing Resources

Lack Proximity that defines Urban Areas = “Care Deserts”

PROBLEM: Goods and services can’t be easily accessed

Pig #4

Lack of Basic Transportation Services

Elders forced to drive (after it’s safe to do so) to get services

PROBLEM: Risk to Elder and Community

Pig #5

Lack of Quality Caregivers

“Informal” Care and Crushing Support Ratios

PROBLEM: Leads to early Institutionalization

Pig #6

Lack of Affordable Housing

Opportunity $Cost of Covering Housing

PROBLEM: Elderly homelessness on the rise

Pig #7

“Aged by Culture”


PROBLEM: Leads to age-segregated societies


Now IMAGINE an amazing place for your future-self and these same “Pigs” now transformed.



Suburbs / Rural Living

“THE ARCHITECTURE OF ISOLATION” transformed into the “Architecture of Connection”

~Village-to-Village Networks spring up in community after community

SOLUTION: Physically and Socially Isolating no more; Increased Inter-dependence, Decreased costs of aging in place


“Our Environments Presume Youth”

-Laura Cartensen PhD

Stanford Center on Longevity

~Tax credits for making homes accessible

~Visitability policy for all new construction

~Zoning laws accepting Accessory Dwelling units (granny flats) / Reward developers for building affordable housing near transit

~CAPABLE Program; Nurse + Occupational Therapist + Handyman = Visit seniors, take vital signs, home assessments, do repairs. This saves Healthcare dollars by investing in home repair up-front vs. Emergency Room visits later

SOLUTION: Accessibility increased and preserved housing stocks for future generations


Difficulty Accessing Resources; No longer a problem but an Opportunity

Turn “Care Deserts” into vibrant hubs serving the aging population

~Reshape Suburbia

~Convert dying strip-malls and shopping centers into places that are walk-able, mixed use housing, with goods and services that cater to urban/rural boomers

SOLUTION: Goods and services are now taken into these communities increasing access via these “aircraft carriers” that have been re-purposed


Lack of Basic Transportation Services; becomes an abundance of transportation options

Elders now have many choices: Uber (Uber+AARP), Lyft (Lyft Hero), Self-driving cars, Freedom-in-motion programs (like Gainsville FL), Silver Ride, National Volunteer Center data base

SOLUTION: Safer Streets for Everyone!


Lack of Quality Caregivers; becomes an abundance of caregiver Options

“Informal” Care and Crushing Support Ratios are aided by aging-in-place technology solutions

~Helathcare goes into the home: “The doctor will skype you now”

~Drone delivery of meds to far off places

~3D printing nutritious meals (and even medications)

~Workplaces that support Informal care giver employees; Flex time, compress work weeks, options for leave, train managers in family-friendly policies

SOLUTION: Supports caregivers, Keeps older adults home by choice, prevents unnecessary clinic visits,


Lack of Affordable Housing

Opportunity $Cost of Covering Housing; now can be invested in QOL issues

~Tax Credits to homeowners and landlords for increasing accessibility

~Doctors write prescriptions for “visitability and other UD home features and it’s covered by insurance

~Home-share programs


~Golden Girls Network

~Air bnb for over-housed Seniors

~Senior-Student home sharing

~ BUILDING THE FUTURE WITH “CONTOUR CRAFTING” 3D PRINTING (China construction co. has printed 10 complete housing units in 24/hrs at a cost of $5,000 each). They can also be custom designed with UD features!

SOLUTION: End to Elderly homelessness and Prolong aging in place


“Aged by Culture”

~Reject ageism like sexism and racism

SOLUTION: Inclusion

Designing communities with age-diversity in mind


We are at a choice point; DYSTOPIA OR GERNOTOPIA? If we choose wisely now…The future will be bright down the road.



The 20 Minute Neighborhood