Unassisted Living: Rethinking residential design

[This is a guest post by Bruce Lederman, who joined us in Chicago for our first #aging2 event there earlier this week. Bruce has over 20 years experience in the senior care field and serves as chair of the board of directors for a non-profit senior care agency. This post originally appeared on his Aging in Chicago blog. Follow Bruce at @aginginchicago.]

During the recent Memorial Day weekend, while shmying (a Yiddish word for window shopping) around in one of my favorite stores in Michigan's Harbor Country, a friend drew my attention to one of many handsome design books prominently displayed on a coffee table in a living room vignette.  He knew I would find the title "Unassisted Living - Ageless Homes for Later Life" intriguing without even bothering to open its handsome pages.

In this volume, authors Wid Chapman and Jeffrey P. Rosenberg, present a kicky review of how affluent (more on this later) members of the baby boom generation approach the design of their living spaces which may be more meaningful not for what it portrays in its color photographs and clearly written text, but rather that it was written at all.   Casual readers will enjoy the jargon-free descriptions of over thirty different residences including single and multi-family houses, various types of multi-unit housing and simple cottages. As the authors write:

we call these "Ageless Homes for Later Life" because they are an exciting mix of conventional geriatric design and ageless planning: homes that deliberately ignore or sidestep the conventional wisdom of design for senior housing.

Although contemporary design (no granny chintz to be found) is the sole aesthetic featured, the housing solutions are varied and organized thematically according to the basic strategy that underlines their design: downsizing, multiple generational living, urban housing, etc.

Make no mistake, this book is not a primer on applying principals of universal design to achieve chic interiors, despite the authors insistence that home designs must integrate style and geriatrics. You will find no mention of MEDCottages here and most of the furnishings that appear in the featured residences would be impractical for someone with ADL impairments. Also, the authors are concerned only with a relatively young and independent population: the occupants of the featured dwellings are in their early sixties and far from frail.

Not surprisingly, like most coffee table books, "Unassisted" is exclusively concerned with affluent households. Although a few examples of affordable housing are presented, one can only chuckle when reading about the retired couple with a getaway home in a seaside resort who intend for the "cozy" guest cottage to serve as their primary residence once they grow older: charming. Not surprisingly, the houses and apartments featured in the book were created for people who are retired or anticipating retirement, an increasingly distant reality for boomers as the dual impact of insufficient savings and continued challenging economic times forces us to work beyond the traditional retirement age of 65.

Regardless of its limited emphasis on design solutions for the affluent, the publication of this book is important. It is a reminder of the market power of a generation of 51 million who are endlessly obsessed with themselves and who insist on growing older on their own terms. As the authors note, "Boomers are a diverse and complex group, but most of them are hoping they will be able to control how they transition to later life." Policymakers and elder care providers cannot hear this message often enough.

What do you think? Learn more on Twitter @aginginchicago


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