Monday, October 7, 2013

Urbanism and Senior Living – Aging in Place

“Aging in place” is often presented as the gold standard of accommodation for senior citizens.   I agree, although I suspect that my definition of “place” differs from most.  Not surprisingly, urbanism plays a role in my thinking.  An example can help illuminate.

I once served on the board for a charity that provided free home repairs for homeowners who were financially incapable of doing the repairs themselves.  We coordinated the use of donated dollars and volunteer labor to complete the projects.  I enjoyed my time with the charity and retain fond memories of many projects we undertook.

I also learned lessons about aging in place.  To illustrate, I’ll tell the stories of two recipients, whom I’ll call Agatha and Zelda.  Partly to protect privacy and partly because I don’t trust my memory after a handful of years, many of the details have been adjusted.  But the hearts of the stories are accurate.

Agatha lived within walkable distance of downtown, although it had probably been years since she had made the walk.  Her health was poor.  She spent much of her time watching television alone.  Most of her groceries came from a neighbor who did the shopping.  Her frontyard, once well-tended, had fallen into deep disrepair.  Inside, the house had gone years without routine maintenance.

We tackled the project with vigor.  A crew of new and enthusiastic volunteers completely updated the frontyard.  We built a ramp to the front door, replaced the hot water heater, and repaired water damage in the bathroom.  Agatha seemed pleased, but as soon as the volunteers were gone, she returned to her former life of watching television and relying on her neighbor for groceries.

Zelda lived a little further from downtown, in a tidy and architecturally interesting home that added well to her neighborhood.  Although in her 80s, Zelda tended her yard every week.  She remained socially involved with her neighbors and still drove, although cautiously.

One of Zelda’s favored possessions was a photograph of her on the back of a motorcycle driven by her son, helmet in place, and smiling broadly for the camera.

The only repairs that she needed a few items, such as gutter repair, that were beyond her physical and financial means.  A small crew was able to quickly complete the tasks.

The goal of our projects was to help Agatha and Zelda “age in place”.

But I think the problem should be evident to most readers.  Agatha may have been aging in place, but she wasn’t aging well.  And I’m not sure that facilitating her continuation of that life was truly helping her.  A better solution may have been for her to sell the house and to use the proceeds to live her final years in a setting that could better meet her social, nutrition, and safety needs.  Plus, her neighborhood would have gained if a young family had moved into the home.

I’m not suggesting that the charity should have pushing that solution on Agatha.  That would have beyond our role.  But perhaps neither should we will have been facilitating her current choice.

I can only speculate about why Agatha wasn’t reaching a relocation decision on her own.  Perhaps she couldn’t see a financial path to a new living situation.  Perhaps she lacked the skill or energy to tackle a move.  Or perhaps, although her connection to her neighborhood was increasingly tenuous, she was unwilling to leave the place where she had lived much of her life.  To leave behind the helpful neighbor and other friends who might still visit her.

And that is where urbanism comes into play.  Although not always at the forefront of the discussion, one goal of urbanism is to create residential options for different stages of life, all within walkable distance of shopping and transit.  The range could be from small apartments for young singles to family homes a bit further from the core to senior apartments with the option of nursing care.

The concept of allowing seniors to live out their years in the same neighborhood in which they lived their lives is gaining momentum.  A senior living facility was proposed in downtown Petaluma several years ago, although it fell victim to the economic times.  The photo above is a senior living home in the Northwest Crossing neighborhood of Bend, Oregon.  It’s located in the heart of a commercial district with family housing only a short walk away.

In the end, I’m fine with the idea of aging in place, as long as it’s understood that sometimes “place” means home and other times it means neighborhood.

If you’re wondering about Agatha and Zelda, Agatha only lived in her home for another six months.  By then, she was in her final days.  She was moved to a convalescent home and passed away weeks later.

Meanwhile, Zelda stayed in her home for several more years before deciding on her own that she’d get more enjoyment out of life in a senior living home.  She was right.  She quickly made new friends and was a focus of activity in her new place of living until she passed away.

I’ll never regret the resources that we spend helping Zelda, but still question whether we served the community or the recipient with the work we did for Agatha.

Schedule Notes

Petaluma architect George Beeler will speak at the next meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat.  He’ll talk about a subject that directly relates to aging in place.  Beeler has been active in the possible local formation of a “Village Network”.

Village Networks, which exist in communities throughout the country, are associations that provide services for senior citizens by acting as a clearinghouse to coordinate volunteerism among seniors and by vetting local businesses that provide services for seniors.

I recently attended a discussion about the Village Networks idea.  The concept of aging in place was mentioned several times, leaving me wary.  But then reference was made to help a member move into accommodations within her neighborhood that were more suitable for her stage of life.  They were words I wanted to hear.

The meeting will be tomorrow, Tuesday, October 8.  As always, we’ll convene at 5:30pm.  The meeting place will be the Aqus Café, at the corner of 2nd and H Streets in Petaluma.  All are welcome.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. Dave: excellent topic to address in the short term with George Beeler's planned presentation at this month's Urban Chat. In the medium term, I appreciate its relevance for my cohort of folks reaching eligibility for Medicare — with a hooray, I might add. When Janie and I searched out and selected our highly walkable Westside home in our late 30's, we had an eye not just to the decades of enjoying neighborhood life with easy downtown access but also to ease our long-term intentions of "aging in place" a placed we love. I'd very much like to help facilitate the same for all. This blog enriches my thinking about the social and planning processes that requires.

    1. Barry, as always, thanks for reading and commenting.