In this series of articles based on the Lab’s 100 Urban Trends glossaries, our writers are focusing on “trends” that are meaningful to them, and sharing insights on urban issues that shape our lives. Today’s trend: Aging Population.
During the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s 2011 run in New York, one of the more provocative offerings was a two-part workshop led by architect Matthias Hollwich. The workshop dealt with the ways that older people can maintain meaningful, healthy lifestyles in cities through thoughtful design. Hollwich opened with a statement thinly veiled as a dare: “If your age is more than half your expected lifespan, declare yourself old!” His message was clear: stop pretending that getting old happens in gradual stages. Embrace it, get over it, and start living your life as an old person. From this perspective, aging ceases to be relative. “Wow, suddenly “I feel old right now” just gives way to a gentle shrug: “I’m old,” just as someone would say, “I’m right-handed.”
Ageism plagues urban design—many aspects of our cities are not created to accommodate the elderly. The concept of “aging in place” has become a hot topic among many urban designers, who believe that urban design should evolve in a way that allows adults to stay exactly where they are as they grow older. In this way, elderly people can remain safely in their own homes and communities, regardless of mobility, ability, age, or income. Those interested in home design recommend simple ways to update existing homes in both luxurious and practical ways, using smart technologies to assist with personal care.
I’ve personally become ever-more attached to my own neighborhood and my surrounding community as I’ve grown older—so much so that I really can only imagine myself happy living in a souped-up version of my very own apartment. After living in my building for more than ten years, even the threat of flooding in downtown Manhattan is not enough to make me move. I’m such a New Yorker! At the same time that I’ve been thinking about what my attachment to my home could mean to me in old age, I’ve become aware of some fear that growing old could mean that my world gets smaller. Friends and neighbors I have long known from my neighborhood in the East Village have slowly decamped to outer boroughs, the suburbs, places that involve cars and backyards. Could old age mean being cut off from the social life I know, and the world in general?
I had all this in mind when our offices moved to 25th Street, right above an extraordinary, technology-themed community center for people aged sixty and above called Senior Planet. Senior Planet offers a robust slate of programs to teach anyone over the age of sixty a range of technology skills. In five-to-ten-week workshops, seniors can learn to become comfortable navigating basic commands on iPads, cell phones, and digital cameras; they can even get help with the soul-searching process necessary to create a compelling OK Cupid dating profile. The center’s motto? “Aging with attitude.”
The Senior Planet space is sleek, flexible and, well, classy-looking—a far cry from depressing senior “rec” centers I recall from my youth. Senior Planet claims to be the only technology center of its kind in the country, if not the world, and I have no reason to doubt it. I’ve been passing its storefront at 127 West 25th Street daily for a few months now, and it’s clear that the space has attracted people from all walks of life. These elderly visitors are learning to connect to loved ones and strangers alike through new technology, and thus participating more deeply in today’s world.
When I talked with Kimberly Brennsteiner, Senior Planet’s director of programs, she explained, “Older adults come to us every day saying that they feel ‘like the world is passing them by.’ We know they feel the weight of being unable to communicate through the same channels as the digital mainstream. They know they are missing out on seeing new family photos . . . and taking part in the larger conversations that we are having as a society through social media.”
A theme that often arose at the New York Lab—how we can be empathetic and walk in someone else’s shoes—also came up in my conversation with Brennsteiner. She underscored the importance of understanding a universal fear we all share, which is tied to feeling connected: “Our society makes no effort to hide the prevailing attitude that older adults are incapable of learning new technology. This only reinforces feelings of marginalization and disconnect, and contributes to anxiety and fear about learning something new.”
Some may assume that seniors don’t want to learn new skills. And perhaps some elderly people do make assumptions about technology—that iPads and other new devices are “not for them” because they are either too technical or too much of a luxury. But Brennsteiner really believes that they need to be shown how technology can be relevant for their own lives. This fits with the “aging in place” concept, as it means that the world’s outside connections and new friendships can be threaded into one’s own sense of community. It’s also a way elderly people’s power and agency can grow, not just as “seniors” but as human beings.
Maybe, soon, we will see a shift towards inter-generational housing in cities that allows for children to stay close to their aging relatives, to nourish relationships in real time. Meanwhile, I don’t feel quite so worried about life as an old person. “Aging with attitude” sounds awesome.