Aging in Community – Reflections 2

As we head into the next decade, who will own the conversation around aging in community? Who has the most vested interest in how we envision, plan and build age inclusive communities? Well most certainly the answer is – everyone. That everyone on one level is every day people, you and me as citizens, and on another level, that everyone is a cast and crew of professionals from urban planners and architects to gerontologists and occupational therapists, just to name a few.

This diverse range of citizen and professional insight was on stage at the National Institute on Ageing (NIA) conference, Nov.23 in Toronto under the title Envisioning Ageing in Place. One of the secret ingredients highlighted in most of the presentations was the power of collaborations at work in communities to make things happen. Beyond examples of citizens working with municipal leaders, this also includes cross-disciplinary professional and business collaborations.

Maybe it’s because of my own long standing lay interest and self-study in urban design and architecture, but I found I could have listened and learned more from the architects in the room that day. Even as they were sharing space on the panels with people from other disciplines, there could have been more time to break off into another room, even for an hour just to bash around design ideas.

Don Loucks, architect, urban designer and heritage site planner at Metropolitan Design Ltd., featured one of his recent projects called Retallack House. This is a private owner build in Toronto, which focused on accessibility and inclusivity in design. Apart from the fact that this project was obviously created by a well-financed individual, it certainly serves as a model for futuristic thinking for aging in place; and it does beg the question – why aren’t we simply building every new home on principles like this for future aging populations?

No doubt, in the Retallack example the architect worked with direct input from the owner. Yet it stands to reason, that when a new build or a retrofit of an existing home is considered, that it would be useful to have insights from a collaborative team of home care providers who go in and out of homes and thus could suggest design features that could also aid in the delivery of their services. If this is happening now on a selective basis then why not insist on this being more the norm?

Imagine making aging in place design – fashionable

Occupational Therapist Lesya Dyk of Hamilton based LDOT, certainly advocated for this point on cross-disciplinary collaborations. Her visual way of making the aging in place, aging in community design imperative more animated (as Sue Lantz, Founder of Collaborative Aging suggested we do in her opening remarks), was to say that just like eyewear, we need to make functionality and accessibility in homes animated by fashion design. That example resonated with me harkening back to a previous life in retail management with an 18-month stint in the optical business.

For aging in place to be fashionable, and as a result more acceptable, perhaps we need to look once again at vocabulary and jargon. Like eyewear, the moment we stopped calling them spectacles, or nerdy glasses and upped the game to trend setting fashion, more people just had to buy that second pair. Perhaps we need a contest to rename the phrase aging in place! And even if we don’t, then at least stop framing it as if it’s a seniors issue alone.

In further praise of architects who lead the way, the other architect on the panel that ended the NIA conference was Doug Snyder of Snyder Architects in Toronto. One of the “transformative design” areas the firm specializes in is Long Term Care (LTC). While their website portfolio shows a range of examples for LTC facilities, I think back to Snyder’s off script start to his presentation where he talked about a design shift when we consider variations of aging in place.

Choices for aging in community creates social capital

As Snyder said, there is this design shift, almost in my mind like looking at a split screen story. There is the hotel model with custodial care, where you give up control of your choices, and the social home model in the community with in-home care. When we decide on the options to choose, it will mean evaluating the need for specialized care and the balance between safety and freedom.

When we describe our own take on what “place” is within a community, we do have to consider that definitions will vary and views will change throughout our later life course. This is the individual’s consideration and why options for housing in later life living need to be widely explored. As it goes, I guess I can say that the NIA conference did its work for me by providing enough stimulation to want to bring this discussion to wider circulation out in the community.

In my view, whatever we do, having viable and affordable choices for aging in community creates the social capital that we need in a longevity society, integrating all the options with an age inclusive, intergenerational discussion of ideas. This collaborative approach will, hopefully stop us from building more fortresses for old people, improve social connectedness and lead aging in place, (however we call it), in a positive new direction.

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