The Future of Aging

Russian River and Ocean 12x4 image: Annette Heacox
Russian River and Ocean 12×4
image: Annette Heacox

“The young and even the middle-aged can’t truly appreciate what it is to be old.” (-) “The sheer aloneness and inescapability of it. A different shore. You have gone somewhere and you aren’t coming back.” 

Why do we run away from aging in our current society? Aging is an unavoidable reality. Regardless of what we do to our bodies and minds, we age. But can racing against aging become embracing our golden years?

In this admittedly non-academic post, I share hopes and fears and also my research on the topic of aging. A few years ago, I wrote a questionnaire targeting the elderly population. Aging should concern us all, and we urgently need new attitudes and answers.

I want to challenge that vision of running away from aging. I’ll brainstorm some answers and propose new ideas partially based on the questionnaire I addressed to seniors. We are tomorrow’s elderly; there is always hope.

Giorgio 48x12 image: Annette Heacox
Giorgio 48×12
image: Annette Heacox

Facts:

  • Our aging population is increasing exponentially.
  • Common solutions to handle the elderly are inadequate. Most retirement homes lack love and basic human interaction. Efficiency takes over human needs.
  • We will all become elderly.

Questions:

Keep in mind that this is ongoing research open to anyone who can contribute to give new answers to the Future of Aging. Therefore, these questions are not exclusively addressed to landscape architects, but to everyone for their consideration.

  • What can change about how we address the elderly, and how can we implement these changes?
  • How can we embrace aging and accept its natural signs: wrinkles, white hair, slower body, being less fit?
  • Is embracing aging cultural? Europe and part of the American East coast seem more in tune with aging than California, for instance, based on my observations.
  • We are in a cycle of constant evolution/revolution in technology. How can humanity keep up?
  • How can we deal with the gap this creates between the young and old?
  • Can the elderly remain active and be a true inspiration for younger generations?
  • Why not contemplate the elderly’s wisdom in our lives?
  • Can we, as landscape architects, deliver solutions for today and tomorrow that help to answer these questions?

Aging is an inevitable part of life and life cycles with death. The only constant is change, as Heraclitus said.

Landscape architecture is a unique design profession. Landscape architects work with a range of issues at many scales, and yet, people are the focus of our designs. In our daily work, we design an interface between ever-changing built environments, people, and evolving landscapes. We are well-suited to tackle complex challenges, as performers in the theater of design.

I am a dreamer. Since childhood I’ve embraced the wisdom of the elderly, showing respect for their needs and knowledge. Over the last fifty years, our society, and the level of respect accorded to the elderly, has changed. Our senior citizens act differently and we treat them differently. Just think about how the word ‘retiree’ seems to push a person aside. There must be other ways!

image: Annette Heacox
image: Annette Heacox

Answers:

My questionnaire’s goal was to gather answers about aging through the eyes of the elderly. In the typical retirement home, what works? What doesn’t? Are residents’ needs met? The seniors’ participation gave some great insights:

  • My biggest discovery: aging doesn’t transform us into aliens! We don’t change—the elderly’s needs are simply our needs: love, intellectual challenge, company, peace, time to relax and replenish, feeling useful, safe, etc.
  • There are as many types of elderly people as there are adults. There is no single ideal answer for a facility and its outdoor spaces, but multiple answers.
  • Mixing generations is often well received, although it’s not necessarily suited to everyone. A common response from the people I spoke with was: “It’s a great idea, but not for me.”
  • The importance of open space is stressed not only for the enjoyment of being outdoors but also as a pure visual amenity from a window or room.
  • Many people wish to remain active for as long as possible, even pushing it to its limits.
  • Some elderly feel they get their life back after the race they lived during their “productive years.” No more deadlines. No one is there to stop them anymore. Freedom!
  • Intellectually speaking, many elderly people miss talking to others. Nurses don’t have the luxury to take the time to enter into meaningful conversations with those in their care. They need to attend to their next patient. These elderly desire nurses or other contacts exclusively for companionship, not medical care.

Ongoing solutions:

  • Keep asking the elderly about their needs and desires in our ever-changing world.
  • Be aware of their current needs for independence, safety, love, camaraderie, and socializing with friends and family.
  • Match future generations with environments adapted to their new societies.
  • Focus on the positive aspects of aging: children at heart, freedom from obligations, free time, no deadlines, wisdom.
  • Create mixed-generation facilities for children, adults, and the elderly.
  • Design open space which does not require the elderly to be active in it. Limited or no participation is okay, too.
  • Visual scenery restores well-being.
  • Pursue federal and state grants to support research and new developments.
  • Create a design competition focused on what we want our own retirement home and outdoors to be like.
  • Keep up with technology. Gaps between generations can be bridged through technology, while also promoting health and willingness to participate in a new or familiar environment.
  • Avoid loneliness/exclusion in affordable facilities and stress human interaction, possibly through adopt-a-senior programs.
  • Encourage human encounters among different generations.
Tourbillon d'eau 20x14 image: Annette Heacox
Tourbillon d’eau 20×14
image: Annette Heacox

Conclusion:

Landscape architects have a role to play in how aging is addressed in the future. We must react, plan, and implement solutions. What infrastructure must we design to accommodate the elderly in this new reality?

Creative solutions exist: independent senior communities, new occupations as dedicated volunteers, etc.

Embrace the future. The race against reality is over, and we should try to spend more time with seniors now. Can you see how the world seems to slow down and how you feel more calm and relaxed?

This is an urgent matter if we want to enjoy our golden years differently from what our society currently offers. Once I heard, “Love, harmony, and balance are what humanity needs most.” It is clearly true.

Experts and References:

Bob Scarfo, Associate Professor, Landscape Architecture
Washington State University Interdisciplinary Design Institute
Spokane, WA

Jack Carman, FASLA, RLA, CAPS
Design for Generations, LLC
Medford, NJ

California Department of Aging

World Health Organization (WHO) Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities (GNAFCC) and Information on Ageing

New Lifestyles: The Source for Senior Living

by Annette Heacox, ASLA, 51, made in France

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