Much ado has been made about Alzheimer’s. In the Netherlands there is even an entire, self-contained village where people with dementia live like ‘normal’ people. Denmark has a community called, “Life in the 50’s” for those boomers who want to retire in nostalgia. However, while championing the cause of the moment, we are neglecting entirely the real problem facing us right now: our elderly. Every 7 seconds someone in the US turns 60. In 5 years, one-third of the population will be over 55.
So what are we doing? Building thousands of nursing homes instead of designing our present cities so that we can age gracefully in them. I live in a lovely, long-established neighborhood but there is not a single sidewalk so that I can walk through it safely. I could move to one of those retirement communities where everyone drives around in golf carts but that would get ‘old’. Besides, I would miss seeing and learning from young people and though they don’t know it yet, they would miss me, too.
Since one-third of us will soon be in that special milieu just how ‘golden’ will those years actually be? Our culture STILL has a fascination with all things young and Madison Avenue continues to sink millions into glitzy Cosmopolitan advertisements. But who wants to be sold high heels when they have trouble climbing the stairs? Who will buy the next high-tech gizmo that takes 20-20 vision and fast, nimble fingers to operate? And while collagen may plump up your lips, it takes joy to really make them smile. That feeling springs from a nurturing community, not a divisive one.
We need to stop creating separate spaces that divide us and design ones that incorporate both young and old. Imagine a park where Maya Angelou strolls with Miley Cyrus discussing poetry as Jack Nicklaus shows Justin Bieber how to swing a 9 iron. Hard to imagine? Yes, but not so long ago that was how life in America looked. People were connected face to face—not cyberspace.
Am I sounding political? You bet. If we continue devaluing the old while placing premiums on the young we will create a restless, impatient and mentor-less society. Unemployment figures would shrink to zero if focus were put on aiding the elderly: building one-level homes, designing smaller cities that are walkable, creating abundant parks, planting greenery and simply caregiving our real ‘antiques;’ the ones so priceless they cannot be sold at auction.