Despite our enhanced understanding of how integral socialization and engagement are to long-term health, we continue to perpetuate a senior housing paradigm that places people in self-contained communities.
According to AgingCare.com, 43% of senior citizens today are lonely and, therefore, significantly more likely to suffer health problems and die at a younger age. This illuminating and overlooked statistic illustrates how shortsighted the current paradigm for retirement communities is and why we must change how we think about senior living.
Emotional wellness and social engagement are critical parts of a healthy lifestyle. They augment our mental and physical fitness as we age. Elders who find themselves isolated from thriving communities suffer. They become prone to loneliness and their health suffers as a result. And the burden and costs of declining health are borne not only by family members, but by our society at large.
Despite our enhanced understanding of how integral socialization and engagement are to long-term health, we continue to perpetuate a senior housing paradigm that places people in self-contained communities. These communities are beautifully designed and feature a plethora of amenities: easy access to healthcare, food and everyday living services. But almost all of them leave residents segregated from other age groups.
This enduring model, coupled with society’s shift towards an older demographic—precipitated by the aging of the Baby Boomers—means our current retirement paradigm is nearing a tipping point. We will soon be faced with a choice: reinvent our current community options or continue to confine our elders to lifestyle options that prevent them from living fully engaged lives.
At Gensler, our recognition of this pending problem has led us to the develop what we call BoomTown, a new lifestyle option that promotes community and social wellbeing while fostering essential inter-generational relationships in engaging, well-connected spaces.
What is BoomTown?
Simply put, BoomTown is a new community model based upon the idea that smart design and holistic planning can thoughtfully integrate senior living spaces into existing communities without disrupting the existing social fabric or preventing elders from easily accessing the health care and other amenities they require. BoomTown amalgamates ideas and facets from intentional communities, Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs), and urban mixed-use planning into a sustainable community model well-suited for the current generation of people over the age 60. Most importantly, BoomTown offers settings that strengthen existing social bonds and provide new opportunities for connection with members of all generations. The BoomTown typology rests on the idea that multi-generational communities based on common interests and shared resources trump existing housing typologies that rely on generational segregation.
Our idea for BoomTown sprang in part from a recognition that Baby Boomers are rapidly changing perceptions of life past 60. Our elder population now shares similar lifestyle choices and ambitions as members of younger generations. The Boomers, thanks to advances in health and wellness, are significantly healthier and more productive than all previous generations, and consequently are more likely to remain professionally active later in life. The share of Americans ages 65 to 74 who are in the nation’s workforce is expected to break the 30% mark by 2022. Therefore, it makes sense to offer them a new inter-generation housing option that can support their desire to stay active in the work world.
A BoomTown leverages tools currently employed by many new communities—mixed-use design, mobile technology, walkable amenities—while creating an authentic, productive and interconnected lifestyle capable of transcending generational divides. BoomTown acknowledges that most soon-to-be retirees take pleasure in the same amenities and activities as everyone else and seeks to reinforce shared interests rather than highlight differences. BoomTown accomplishes this through the following strategies:
- Mixed-Use for Everyone: Locate communities close to commercial, medical and recreational facilities, and designate spaces for multiple uses. Flexibility in design accommodates changing needs. Universal Design principles, or a collection of design features and products that make a home safer and more comfortable for all residents, take precedence.
- Capitalize on Technology: Mobile devices have completely changed the process of arranging on-demand services. Assistive services are no longer solely available through service providers like a retirement community—they’re available to any individual with a smart phone. Telemedicine has also changed access to medical consultations, making virtual doctor visits an option for those with mobility limitations.
- Build Harmonies on Multiple Levels: A BoomTown finds the intersection between physical and social space. It synergizes design with the tools available to us: networks, organizations, smart homes and walkable urban spaces. It orients communities around commonalities that transcend generations. It allows its target audience, i.e., Baby Boomers, to be proactive about their health and to find inclusion and ownership within the community. It affords opportunities for informal interaction, while molding space to bolster the frequency of such interactions.
How Do We Actualize BoomTown?
Aging remains stuck in age-old stereotypes. We need a more optimistic view that celebrates longevity and intergenerational collaboration. And how we discuss that view is important; symbolic language is a powerful driver of culture, as it both labels and guides people and actions. We need to shift our communications and cultural symbols away from infirmity and passivity towards integration and proactivity. Personalized atmospheres can empower individuals and augment community missions.
BoomTown addresses these goals by introducing a new community typology capable of combating combat the pervasive spread of outdated stereotypes about aging. It addresses real world problems currently plaguing elders and brings much needed attention to the lifestyle choices and desires Baby Boomers now have. Most importantly, it places these choices and desires within the flow of mainstream society rather than segregating them in stand-alone communities.
The sheer size of the Baby Boomer generation impels us to work together in the design of integrated, holistic community models. BoomTown is our attempt at starting this process. Our end goal is mainstream acceptance of an interconnected community model that gives people the spaces they need to achieve informal interaction, access the amenities they need, and feel empowered to pursue their passions and ambitions at all stages of life.
In subsequent blogs we’ll share our research process, our personal perspectives on aging and begin to sketch out a path towards turning BoomTown into a reality. The culmination of this blog series is a dinner salon, which gathers a variety of industry leaders for a lively discussion around developing this new BoomTown model. This forum of experts is to be held at Gensler’s Washington, D.C., office on September 21.