Aging is inevitable and natural, yet people tend to fear it. There is a fear of losing mobility, cognition and independence. It is only more recently that American society has started to place an emphasis on accepting the aging process and embracing it. There are opportunities to supplement changing abilities in ways that help maintain typical routines and support living independently. Forward-thinking leadership combined with thoughtful design solutions can change perceptions and pave the way for a positive outlook on aging.
AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins talks about changing the aging conversation in her book Disrupt Aging: A Bold New Path to Living Your Best Life at Every Age. She encourages creating a new mind-set and champions thinking of possible solutions to help people live better as they age. The #DisruptAging conversation continues to gain momentum and old paradigms are being challenged by local innovators and organizations like Renée Anderson, President & CEO of Saint John’s On The Lake.
When it comes to aging, Anderson finds there is a tendency for senior living organizations to highlight wellness but to focus initiatives on the physical dimension. “It’s relatively easy to build a pool, purchase equipment for a gym or hold a yoga class, but wellness is multifaceted,” says Anderson. “The emotional and spiritual aspects are just as, if not more, important than physical wellness – and really hard to engage residents with and measure impact.”
No matter the difficulty of addressing the additional dimensions of wellness, an environment that supports successful aging requires a more comprehensive approach. The reality is, according to Anderson, that wellness is relative and relevant at any age and at any stage of aging. “We’re trying to prepare our residents to age well by managing the totality of their health, accept aging and make modifications to their life to continue to engage and enjoy as they are able,” she says.
Saint John’s commitment to wellness and the #DisruptAging conversation is evidenced by a week-long symposium they have hosted for the last three years that features national speakers exploring aging. “We believe strongly in openness, education, understanding, empathy and acceptance of aging, death and dying,” says Anderson. “Aging is natural and unavoidable; by confronting it, we are able to accept and manage it, positioning ourselves as a provider to be successful supporting our residents to live their best lives.”
To facilitate the mission of forward-thinking providers like Anderson, architects and designers that specialize in senior living need to help create environments that celebrate and support aging. Twenty years ago, a typical marketing tour of an independent living community would have involved a discussion about how the apartment was designed to help residents age in place. The tour guide would have tapped on the bathroom shower wall to communicate that the appropriate wall blocking was available, so grab bars could be installed when necessary—meaning after a fall, the grab bars would be installed to prevent another fall. A forward-thinking #DisruptAging mind-set looks at seamlessly integrating features such as grab bars, clearances for mobility equipment, easy-to-reach storage, no-step showers, nonslip surfaces, etc. to create a holistic supportive environment. This is how the design of the physical environment can support a change in the mind-set so that aging is accepted, and modifications are made proactively.
Aging is about change. Neither good nor bad, it’s only a changing of abilities. A well-designed and supportive physical environment in cooperation with the human touch can help residents work through those changes and still continue thriving in the location of their choosing. For example, as people age, mobility issues may develop, and additional support may be needed to encourage ambulation. Seating niches placed to provide areas to rest for a moment before continuing on to a community destination can encourage resident mobility and socialization. A spontaneous conversation may erupt when pausing to rest and re-energize.
In senior living communities, technology also helps improve the experience of caring for residents. While technology will never replace the low-tech approach of sitting with and talking to a resident, it does provide staff more time for one-on-one interactions with residents, encouraging a relationship-based care model.
Whether technology, space planning or universal design solutions, the point is to create supportive environments that embrace aging. Successful aging involves an understanding of people’s changing abilities, a willingness to receive some assistance and the proper surroundings that make everyone feel welcomed and comfortable.
“We focus on ability not disability,” says Anderson. “Just as you would adjust and accommodate the environment for a child with a disability, we create an environment supportive of aging.”
Visit AG Insights to learn more about the multifamily, mixed-use and senior living trends being explored by AG Architecture.
Jo Ann Jenkins, Disrupt Aging: A Bold New Path to Living your Best Life at Every Age, New York: PublicAffairs, 2018.
Jo Ann Jenkins, “Changing the World’s Conversation About Aging,” AARP Bulletin, March 26, 2018.