Architecture for the Aging: A Giant and Wealthy Market with Special Needs

When you think of senior housing, you probably think of drab high rises designed for fixed-income oldsters who need a safe place to wait out the reaper. But that image is painfully outdated – many of today’s seniors live longer and have the financial wherewithal to demand architecture that truly meets their needs. Some architects are taking notice.

Data show that 54 million Americans over the age of 55 hope to grow old in their homes. Most homes, however, were built with just the first user in mind, and often that design did not take into account the aging of the user.

“We have a responsibility to train the next generation of architects to think about accessibility and housing flexibility,” says Georgeen Theodore, associate professor and director of the Infrastructure Planning Program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, in an article in Atlantic Cities. “It shouldn’t just be a niche market for older adults, but part of the larger project of housing.”

One of the ideas Theodore’s group devised is a house that a couple could occupy half of when first married, then expand into the rest of as they develop a family. Then, when the children leave and the couple ages, they could shrink their living space back into just half the house, leaving the rest for another couple.

Another such program exists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, where students and faculty are looking at how society can accommodate its aging population gracefully.

“New Aging is an initiative to unleash creativity and bring together thinkers and doers who will create a call for action to provide better living circumstances for our aging community. The conference leads the way by addressing aging by focusing on progressive advances in architecture, city planning, and culture,” according to the program’s website.

One of the University of Pennsylvania professors involved in the program, Matthias Hollwich, stresses that architects should envision how THEY would like to live when they become older. Hollwich hopes to envision an ideal senior city, a Geropolis.

The American Institute of Architects has also acknowledged this situation. The AIA Design for Aging Knowledge Community helps member architects create a built environment that serves the needs of seniors. The group’s motto is:

“The mission of the AIA Design for Aging Knowledge Community (DFA) is to foster design innovation and disseminate knowledge necessary to enhance the built environment and quality of life for an aging society. This includes relevant research on characteristics, planning, and costs associated with innovative design for aging. In addition, DFA provides outcome data on the value of these design solutions and environments. “

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Designing homes for seniors is not just a matter of creating ADA-accessible high rises anymore – it’s the creation of living spaces that allow seniors to maintain independence and go gracefully into their later years.

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