‘Young-Old: Urban Utopias of an aging Society
Its going to happen to all of us – “Done got Old – can’t do the things I use to!” – Junior Kimbaugh – even those of us in deep denial who intend to work till we die ( most designers and architects I know do not intend to retire). Yet the existing models for later life living are pretty poor and none of the regularly offered ones are very satisfactory. This in-depth review of the options is worthwhile reading for anyone involved in design or management of the aged or making place for aging in our society.
Global populations are aging—according to the UN, by 2030 the number of citizens aged 60 years or over is projected to grow by 56%, a figure which by 2050 is expected to double again, to a total of 2.1 billion seniors worldwide, skewed towards ‘greying economies’ such as those of the US and Europe. Where and how will our seniors live in the future? This month I speak to architect and KADK professor Deane Simpson, who researches shifts in the built environment which are occurring as a consequence of population aging, and Stephen Bates of award-winning firm Sergison Bates who recently completed the Housing for Older Residents project in Hampstead, London. Is it possible to move beyond stereotypes to create an architecture which is functional, healthy and beneficial for the older generation?
It was a visit to St Petersburg, Florida, during the mid-1990s which first sparked Simpson’s interest in the peculiarities of elderly lifestyle communities. With a group of friends, he had stumbled into a housing district exclusively for the over 65’s which challenged their preconceptions of the modern mixed-demographic city. In a bar brimming with vivacious seniors, they felt like complete outsiders. It was an experience which inspired him to lead an architecture study group from ETH-Zurich back to Florida to research deeper into what he saw as a distinct shift in senior living which later informed his award-winning book ‘Young-Old: Urban Utopias of an Aging Society’.
“A common understanding of seniors would be people with physical or mental difficulties who required care”, explains Simpson, “but my sense was that that housing and urbanism for the ‘Young-Old’ was not really being discussed. I became interested in how emphasis had shifted from care towards entertainment and leisure, and how these communities were self-segregating on an urban scale”.
Old age is now widely understood to have subdivided into two separate phases of life—the ‘Young-Old’ can now expect to enjoy 20-30 years of good health prior to becoming ‘Old-Old’, when they require special care and support. Historian Peter Laslett, in his 1996 book ‘A Fresh Map of Life’, suggests this phenomenon first emerged as a consequence of the older generation becoming liberated by improvements in healthcare and lifestyle and possessing significant comparative wealth compared to other demographic groups. In the decades following 1950, there was a limited precedent for the ‘Young-Old’ in terms of societal expectations and conventions of how and where to live.
The US is recognized to have pioneered early trends in retirement living as it was not tied to the need to rebuild after the Second World War, a task which preoccupied both Europe and Japan. The world’s first documented age-segregated retirement community, Sun City Arizona, built in 1954 and now home to 37,000 seniors, was the first to explore accommodation options for the emerging ‘Young-Old’ demographic. Sun City promised year-long sunshine, leisure-based social activities, companionship and fun—a far cry from the dreaded nursing home.
My sense was that housing and urbanism for the ‘Young-Old’ was not really being discussed. I became interested in how emphasis had shifted from care and rest to entertainment and leisure, and how these senior communities were self-segregating on an urban scale” Deane Simpson
Owner-occupied retirement housing now represents 17% of the total housing stock in the US, a figure which is steadily increasing year after year. According to the Financial Times, the wealth of the ‘baby boomer’ generation has enabled age-specialist developers to bid for the first time against mainstream development firms to supply prime real-estate. In New Zealand, 12% of over 75s now live in retirement communities, a figure which has risen from 9% in 2014. Meanwhile, housing typology options for seniors have continued to diversify to a certain extent, with an emphasis on familiar styles and forms arranged into neighborhood groupings. I was interested to explore the main trends and innovations in senior housing, so I went in search of architects who are addressing the needs and desires of the older generation with a variety of contrasting approaches.
SENIOR LIVING DREAM 1: THE RETIREMENT VILLAGE
Taking after the Sun City model, the retirement village is characterized by separate dwellings designed specifically for the over 55’s, separated from the rest of the city. Organizations such as the UK-based International Longevity Center warn that the global upsurge in the construction of privatized retirement villages might spell the end for the traditional care home and a state-driven model of elderly care. While most villages take a detached, suburban picket-fence type outlook to housing as seen in Sun City, others adopt a more experimental approach.
One of the most extraordinary propositions I came across was that of Guedes Cruz Architects’ Alcabideche Social Complex near Lisbon, Portugal. The community of 52 cube-like dwellings, constructed from concrete and plexiglass, shade elderly residents from scorching summer sun. Unlike almost all other retirement communities I researched, this project embraces some of the harder to stomach realities of aging—when a resident sounds an alarm within the house, the entire roof of the building lights up red, a glowing distress signal which is broadcasted to the entire community. The 10,000m2 neighborhood also houses a support building and an undulating landscape of public terraces and pools which connect the dwellings.
SENIOR LIVING DREAM 2: THE HIGH-END APARTMENT
This interview with a New York resident underlines the older generation are just as diverse as any other age group, not all of whom are searching for the quiet life. “Living in the city is so much better than in the country or burbs”, the 82-year old told the reporter. Some developers are responding to the need of housing seniors within the city by peppering apartment complexes within the existing urban fabric, as a preference to creating detached retirement communities. I spoke to architect Stephen Bates of renowned London-based practice Sergison Bates regarding their Housing for Older Residents project in Hampstead, north London, completed earlier this year. The residential scheme consists of 29 individual apartments with shared facilities, such as social spaces, spa and a communal garden. The community is to be supported by an in-house caretaker whose role is to facilitate both daily activities and care for resident’s needs.
Bates explained that a key driver behind the design was to find an architectural typology appropriate for elderly residents with respect to the context and conservation area of the surrounding site. “We were inspired by the mansion blocks which characterize the area and used this existing urban form to mediate with the townscape of large Arts and Crafts stand alone or semi-detached villas in Hampstead”, he told me. The innovative ‘honeycomb’ plan which first drew me to the project was in part defined by the site footprint and a diagonal emphasis to allow long views across the site towards the gardens. The plan is organized into a number of ‘bedroom suites’ which group changing, bathrooms and sleeping areas together to form definable territories which allow privacy and flexibility of occupation, linked by a ‘middle room’ at the heart of each apartment. “Multi-sided rooms make it possible to have different orientations within the apartment”, describes Bates, “and allowed us to form a collection of ‘good’ rooms rather than aligning purely functional spaces one next to the other.” While offering visual interest to residents spending significant time indoors, a further aim of the design was to enable a live-in carer, visiting family members or a spouse to enjoy different degrees of privacy.
“Many of the residents would have come from a large house, possibly within the area of Hampstead itself”, Bates explains, “and the transition to horizontal living would have to be facilitated by the careful organization of internal spaces. We designed a plan that incorporates a series of areas that allow differentiated access, with interlocking rooms and long diagonal views across them. This creates a landscape of spaces one can move through in more than one way, so that the needs of individual residents can best be met.”
We designed a plan that incorporates a series of areas that allow differentiated access, with interlocking rooms and long diagonal views across them. This creates a landscape of spaces one can move through in more than one way, so that the needs of individual residents can best be met.” Stephen Bates, Sergison Bates Architects.
Portuguese practice Aires Mateus Arquitectos have taken the senior high-rise typology into a rural context for their ‘Residências assistidas em Alcácer do Sal’ (Houses for elderly people in Alcácer do Sal) project, also in Portugal. Speaking to Dezeen, they describe the scheme as a “micro-society”, “between a hotel and a hospital”. They suggest an aim of the project was to address the limited mobility of the building’s residents by forming a patchwork of gently sloping walkways which meander across the site. While the architectural intervention is striking and sculptural due to the way it slices into the topography, it is unclear what access the elderly residents have to medical facilities or social spaces to promote their health and well-being in the long term.
SENIOR LIVING DREAM 3: AGING IN PLACE
While not a new concept, aging in place has garnered significant public attention and commendation in recent years. While critics suggest ‘lifelong homes’ is a convenient policy to promote while cutting public spending budgets, there is also significant grassroots support. Furniture fixes and small interventions are the most cost-effective way of adapting a home as the occupants’ physical abilities deteriorate. In this report, the American Architectural Foundation suggest that enabling people to remain in their previous homes or original communities is the most favorable outcome according to their survey preferences. In the 2007 study ‘aging in Place in America’ commissioned by the Clarity and the EAR Foundation, elderly people fear moving away, losing their independence and exile from their communities, more than they fear death. While this may highlight certain misunderstandings of what alternative options there are available, the severity of this statement is nonetheless significant.
The de-institutionalized approach to senior living may have significant benefits when the built environment is tuned to support and assist elderly residents. Aging in place has been proven to support independence and retain community ties which are difficult to sustain when people are uprooted after they reach a certain age. “At the same time,” suggests Simpson, “[Aging in place] is not a perfect solution as it still poses challenges—on both the housing and neighborhood scale. Immobile seniors who have aged in place in low-density car-based housing areas can be vulnerable to social isolation, and can be beyond walking distance to local amenities or a supermarket. Environments like these can also be more costly to service with healthcare provision.”