A senior moment: Housing design to aid longevity

By Danna Downing

When I first became focused on living arrangements for older adults, the advocacy chant was all about the goal of aging in place, meaning the family home. In the time since my retirement, the experts on the leading edge of senior health challenges have transitioned to the idea of aging in community. This new paradigm better reflects the reality of increased longevity and emerging research about what seniors need to thrive. Ryan Frederick, a nationally recognized expert on human longevity and the critical role of “place” plays in living long and well, opens his book with a startling question. “Are you prepared to live to 100?” he asks. “Centenarians are the fastest growing demographic group, increasing from 100,000 in 1990 to an estimated 4 million in 2050” he states. Furthermore, long lives are becoming the norm, especially for those who are educated, take care of themselves and plan ahead,” he adds. Inevitably, the idea of aging in place is too static, too hard to achieve, and even disastrous if we do not plan for the time when we need additional help and support to live independently or find long-term care.

Aging in place only works until it doesn’t. Then what? “Right Place, Right Time”, by Ryan Frederick, is written with three goals in mind: 1) Help older adults understand the power of being in the right place to thrive at all ages and times. 2) Help older adults and their families evaluate the fit of their current home. 3) Help us explore the growing list of options available to help us take positive action for our future years.

That third goal of taking positive action is more about forethought and process, due to all the unknowns we face in our later years. It involves field trips, family discussions, and management of resources. It involves facing change head-on.

Frederick’s guide offers readers an opportunity to create a personal healthy aging dashboard. This includes key questions to ask yourself regarding your need for social connection, what gives your life meaning, your goals for physical well-being, financial well-being, and all the aspects of what makes you feel at home and in the right place. In addition to the personal questions, he also provides real-life stories of how others have navigated the process. He tops things off with strong alert that this kind of self-evaluation is absolutely essential and a task that must be done over and over again.

One of the most significant parts of the book for me was the thorough tour of housing options: single family housing, apartments, age-restricted housing, senior co-op housing, living with or near family, and emerging options, including cohousing, tiny homes, and an array of interesting village concepts. Place, specifically South County, is very important to me. In fact, the author has a specific term for folks like me: I have to admit that South County has “laid claim to me.” I would like nothing more than to end my years in southern Kalamazoo County. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of senior housing resources near-by. My adult children live out of state. The odds are very good that I will need to face those challenges just like everyone else.

Like other people my age, I try to stay healthy and fit so as to postpone the inevitable long-term care decisions as long as possible. I was intrigued with a section of Frederick’s book devoted to a review of what is called “design thinking.” This innovative approach to making life decisions relies on users to understand their needs, challenge assumptions, look for and test prototypes that are relevant and effective for making important life choices. It was developed at first for college grads and has migrated to many other areas, including older adult life choices.

This is where our work begins in the second half of life. It may begin by visiting an apartment complex in your local community to see what living in an 800-1,200 square foot space feels like to discuss what to do when family can no longer visit you in your much larger current home.

In closing, I would highly recommend reading “Right Place, Right Time”. It is a thoughtful, comprehensive, and very usable guide that includes references and resources for all the topic areas discussed. The book is now available at the Vicksburg District Library and can be viewed and ordered locally at Gilbert & Ivy.

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