The baby boom generation is on the verge of needing to house themselves for their "golden years." Yet, they seem to approach this inevitability with little of the same research and strategic planning that characterizes other decisions they make in their personal or professional lives.
The boomers, and their employers, have invested heavily in health insurance, 401Ks, and other instruments to mitigate risk and ensure their future. They put a great deal of effort into financial and lifestyle planning, and yet overlook how their physical environment will, or will not, support their objectives.
Numerous studies indicate the majority of people would prefer to live into old age in their own home. Additionally, as life spans increase and defined retirement benefits disappear, the longer one can stay in their home the greater the economic options available for stretching assets to cover longevity.
So, what is impeding the process of strategic empty nesting?
It is not entirely a lack of action or investment. In fact, there is a great deal of remodeling and building and moving taking place within this demographic bubble. Yet, the housing created rarely incorporates the features that would fully benefit the investors as they age. The problem lies with the boomers themselves, but also with able assistance from designers, builders, planners and regulators.
No one ever plans to become their parents. However, words like "broken neck" and "born in a barn" start to sneak into our vocabulary. As we deal with our aging parents, we again believe we will somehow avoid the vagaries of life that changed how our once vital parents deal with their physical surroundings.
We, of course, have taken better care of ourselves. "Fifty is the new forty" is as valid as "brown is the new black." Eventually, however, black will return as black, and we will all get old. It will not happen at any specified age, or in any predictable order of failing parts, and if we are part of a couple, it will not happen simultaneously or identically.
Inertia sounds better than procrastination, but the general mantra is, "I'm not ready for such things right now," or "I will get around to it when I need it." The unfortunate snag is that when one is "ready " one may not be able, and when one is in "need" it is too late.
Strategic planning is proactive and puts remedies in place before they are required. Once someone has a stroke, it is too late to eliminate that 7" step at the front door threshold. And, if the need never arises, there is nothing wrong with having an elegantly spacious bathroom in the mean time.
There is a prevailing perception that barrier free design equates to ugly and institutional. ADA can be blamed for some of this negative "grab bar" assessment, but it can also be praised for the myriad of upscale lever handles and faucets that now dominate the market.
Why has there not been similar creativity in product development and design to support all other aspects of universal design? There is no reason that invisible barrier-free living is not attainable in an elegant and exceptionally well-designed home. Yet, designers seem blind to how outstanding architectural features celebrated in design publications (such as flush transitions from interior to exterior spaces) relate directly to universal design, or how standard products (such as rolling retractable screens) are perfect for aging-in-place.
TRENDS & TRADITIONS
A grand stair is a great design feature, and those little toilet closets are all the rage. A two foot wide bathroom door saves space, and those steps up to the front door are "how we have always done it." Things that are familiar can often be unseen until they eliminate one's ability to stay in their home. The current trend to simply put a master bedroom on the main floor and then age-target the marketing is a cruel disservice to homebuyers who may not fully grasp all of the design implications for their future.
Architects need to expand their thinking to all aspects of the living environment, buck the trends, and re-examine traditional construction. In the thousands of decisions that are made in every design, enumerable universal design features can be invisibly incorporated, especially for those clients who might otherwise not see the need.
Zoning requirements and even "new urbanism" ideals are often directly opposed to the needs of the aging-in-place population. One size fits all requirements for minimum open space on a lot can preclude the addition of a main floor bedroom or constrain the ability to provide all activities of daily living on a single floor. Without a credit for smaller mass, this can actually preclude a small aging-in-place home, and yet allow a towering McMansion on the same lot. Requiring a detached garage or disallowing a live-in companion or caregiver can exile a citizen who might otherwise be a productive member of the community.
There is virtually no groundswell of interest in this subject. Much of what is written is clinical and pragmatic. Half measures abound. Exceptional aging-in-place design strategies are rarely recognized with publication or award. The aging population demands little and accepts much, while the design community has not provided the leadership to engender change. Build a bandwagon. Get on board. Spread the word.