What if Superman aged? After all, he did grow from a boy to a man, so logically he should continue to age, particularly in an environment exposed to Kryptonite. He spent his whole working career in Metropolis, saving lives and protecting people from bad guys. What would his retirement look like? Would he want to hang on to that incredible physique? I certainly hope so, if nothing else than for viewing pleasure!
As a resident of the concrete jungle, what does Superman want it to include? Would he desire outdoor park space reminiscent of the farm he grew up on? Would he want to watch sci-fi movies because he is from another planet? Would he want to remain in the city that he grew to love and care for? This is where his friends reside, where he worked, and where he thrived.
When we consider designing spaces for seniors, it should entail designing a community. The arrangement should allow for freedom of movement, safe and familiar surroundings, and activities that are accessible. In cities like New York, people are used to living vertically. I have a friend who lived in Manhattan and New Jersey high-rises for her whole life. When she moved to upstate New York, she was nervous about living on the ground floor of a single-family home—not to mention maintaining the quintessential picket fence and flowers surrounding it!
If people in urban areas have lived in apartments all their lives and thus aged in place, then that environment is the one with which they are most familiar. This is one reason why dedicated senior living communities are not often found in New York City. Older residents have simply lived in concentrated communities and continued to age in the same setting for years. These are called Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs).
Gated communities pose certain issues. They are typically located far from amenities including shopping, public transportation, grocery stores, hair salons, restaurants, and parks. All-inclusive settings can actually be isolating, particularly for older adults who wish to engage their surroundings and continue to be active.
Virtual communities are very popular in larger cities, and grew out of the trend started by Beacon Hill Village in Boston. The concept revolves around organizations that are member-driven and consist of residents in a demographic that supports vibrant, active, and healthy lifestyles within their neighborhoods. The member benefits include provision of discounted providers, as well as support in finding needed resources.
There are also social and cultural programs that are developed on member interests. This movement is called the Village to Village Network, which is based in St. Louis. Examples of these sites can be found in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Austin, Texas. There are currently 190 such villages operating in the United States and 185 villages under development.
So how does this concept tie to design? It teaches us to consider renovations that include all aspects of accessibility, and evaluate individual needs within settings that people choose, thereby supporting their longevity.
While traveling in Beijing with a coworker and my husband, we heard singing coming from above the river walk, and our guide asked if we would like to see what was going on. To our surprise, there was a very large group of seniors that met every morning to sing together, including a full band and conductor.
In China, these residents are referred to as Active Chinese Elders, or ACEs. One gentleman in the group was a retired academic who taught Russian history, spoke Mandarin, Russian, and English, and was thrilled that we were visiting his country. He explained that every day he came to the park to sing and socialize with his friends.
In conversing with him, we understood that if a city is going to address senior needs, it should enable activities like exercising and socializing, while also addressing housing and service needs. Cypress Gardens, located in Fuyang near Hangzhou, meets these requirements by providing outdoor spaces, libraries, and gathering spaces. It stimulates ongoing happiness and social involvement. Its design focuses on the uniqueness of residents and supports their desired outcomes.
Whereas some consider the concrete jungle to be inhospitable, others prefer to be in an urban area. Seniors who choose to do so have the same needs, but they can be met in different ways. So if Superman decides to hang up his cape, perhaps his vision for retired life would involve living in the same community he’s always served and protected. In turn the community should be able to support him.
Jane Rohde is the founding principal of JSR Associates, Inc., in Ellicott City, Md. She champions a global cultural shift toward deinstitutionalizing senior living and healthcare facilities through person-centered principles, research and advocacy, and design of the built environment. Clientele includes nonprofit and for-profit developers, government agencies, senior living and healthcare providers, and design firms.
She speaks internationally on senior living, aging, healthcare, evidence-based design, and sustainability. She is the first recipientof the Environments for Aging Changemaker Award presented by the Center for Health Design. For questions or comments, reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.