Aging in Place

New York City’s efforts to keep senior citizens in our community

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In my practice, as an architect in the US, I have studied how urban housing can be more affordable and attainable to all.  A quality of that is how to facilitate our eldest citizens staying healthy and happy in their homes.  In cities all over the globe people are living longer, many of them living alone, and as we age our bodies change. The goal of Aging in Place is to adapt living environments to complement and support us as we age; one could say to make living “ageless.”

The dilemma of economic inclusion

I truly believe that a better society treats everyone with respect and that a healthy vibrant community results from the inclusion of all.  And I’m not alone. The Aging in Place movement focuses on quality of life and strives to improve housing and communities so that aging doesn’t mean isolation. The Active Living and Green Building movements are in sync with Aging in Place as each movement studies the built environment holistically.

For the wealthy American, options to live in multifamily buildings targeted to the elderly—assisted living residences—are numerous. If you have $8,000 a month, you can live in a community with medical assistance, eat healthy meals in a communal dining area, and have access to social programs. But the majority of Americans can’t afford such a luxury.  For NYC residents over the age of 65, more than 80% receive government social security payments as a portion of their income and that benefit averages only $1,500 per month. A high percentage of NYC seniors are considered “rent burdened,” paying more than 30% of their income for rent. Currently, 14% of the 8.5 million people living in NYC are aged 65 and older.

Moving is hard. Considered one of the most stressful lifetime events, moving at the end of one’s life is particularly problematic, often triggering confusion and a decline in health. Aging in Place, in the best sense, means that I can stay in my home until the very end of my life.  Services can be brought into my home to assist me and technology can allow me to communicate with doctors and family without requiring me to leave the house.

Aging in Place means that people can stay in their homes until the very end of their lives.
Services for seniors can be brought into their homes. Photo by Matthias Zomer/Unsplash

Activism by NYCC architects and designers

The architecture and design community has been at the forefront of the movement to create age-less housing that is beautiful and inclusive. In 2013 the American Institute of Architects (AIA) New York chapter’s Design for Aging committee hosted a day long charette “Booming Boroughs” to tackle the elements of Aging in Place. We looked at housing of three scales: high-rise (10+ stories), mid-rise (6 stories) and townhomes. We identified physical modifications, social services, and technologies to improve housing outcomes. In 2016 the City of New York’s Department of the Aging provided funds to prepare a pamphlet to assist homeowners and apartment dwellers to improve the quality of life, and the possibility of staying healthy in your apartment and community.

The Aging in Place Guide was intended to be used by homeowners and apartment dwellers.  We took care to avoid jargon and to illustrate concepts with photos. MaNYC of the ideas in the guide were intended to be taken on by a “handy man” or the apartment dweller herself. Simple changes can improve the ability of elderly neighbors to get out into the neighborhood and join in. Providing benches for seating outside local businesses, adding clear signage to help neighbors with low-vision and improving the quantity of lighting so walking after dark doesn’t become treacherous.

Technology has its benefits

For the past decade I have had the opportunity to work with Selfhelp Community Services, an NYCC nonprofit housing and social services organization. My architectural work involved physical modifications to apartments and public spaces within their properties but I also observed how technology could help with Aging in Place. Their Virtual Senior Center helps home-bound seniors stay involved in community events and fight the isolation that can come with living alone. A computer with webcam and simple interactive elements is used to “gather” several people together at the senior center for singing, reading the newspaper, or talking about cultural events. It’s a fantastic example of technology helping with communication.

Hope for the Future

The challenges of designing great urban housing will continue and society will no doubt change and evolve. I expect we will all learn more about aging and hopefully the Aging in Place movement will continue to educate and transform housing options for all.

Main image: A street in NYC. Photo by Jahsie Ault/Unsplash

Aging In Place Guide

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