‘New Aging:

The future of old age is uncertain (immortality); design for  opportunities;  a balanced approach – more human-focused less function-focused/ giving and receiving; more specificity; hardwire accessibility, universal design, service technology into the house; foster independence; different living/family arrangements; rethink what home means at old age.’

It was a confirmation of our efforts and an inspiration to push further and think further on the topic of aging and architecture. I recently attended the conference ‘New Aging’ at the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania where many non-architects and some architects listened to each other, developed ideas together and enjoyed as well as benefited from each other’s way of looking at the world. The format of the conference, work groups, short, kick-off lectures followed by lunch, dinner, cocktail social was the ideal framework for exchanging ideas and digging deeper into somebody’s point of view in a more intimate setting.

‘At Home With Growing Old’ , in its monthly discussion forums and blog, has the same intent, bringing together people from various disciplines who are engaged with the topic of aging, forging alliances and thinking about idea development in a different way – more encompassing, more inclusive, taking advantage of all our specialized knowledge toward better solutions for an aging society. We are all busy though and the focused energy of a two-day conference where people have committed their attention was a wonderful boost. I hope that the ongoing efforts of ‘At Home With Growing Old’ will contribute to garner the energy of this momentum.

Where did the energy come from? It came from the organization of the conference by Matthias Hollwich and his team and the deep passion of all the speakers for their topic.

Aubrey de Grey projected the vision that based on the development of current scientific knowledge we will have a chance to choose immortality in about 50 years from now. If this ever is to come true it will change the world we know now. It made me realize that most of our thinking is based on the past, on old patterns. If it is already inconceivable for most of us to plan ahead for old age since we cannot conceive of ourselves as old and frail, how much more unthinkable and therefore ‘unplannable’ is potential immortality?

Greg Stock made clear that human evolution is our frontier and not outer space. Biology and genetics are at the core of the effort of taking control of the evolutionary future. What kind of life are we designing for? Buildings seem too rigid, too permanent to respond to the speed of change or does it correlate perfectly with the purported average life cycle of 75 years for a building? Maybe houses will again be focused on being shelters and less the vehicle of the expression of self or maybe they will become more like clothing, i.e. personal, flexible, functional and short lived. Madeline Gins’ take on architecture – architecture as a provocateur and stimulator of the human body might have some answers to the needs of this changing human being.

With the presentation of Werner Berger, a 73 old who climbs the high mountains of this world it became clear that part of our experience of aging is based on the expectations we have in ourselves. For him ‘at home with growing old’ is the joy that comes from having the physical strength to climb to the top and from the personal triumphs such strength brings at his age. It is hard work. This delight we draw from our body and mind explains why it is so hard for most of us to adjust our expectations when sharpness of mind and body leaves us. A notion we still have to contend with – at least for the immediate future.

What can architecture contribute? When the beauty of the mountains is not within reach anymore, it is up to architecture to bring this beauty inside.

‘May your wishes come true’- facilitating indulgence, paying attention to uselessness and embracing imperfection, were some of the demands on architectural design both by architects and non-architects.

Architectural design can provide those opportunities. Others have to contribute to make those opportunities work. They have to be part of the design process from the very beginning; the ‘imperfect’ gardens need volunteers who tend to them and by doing so interact with the inhabitants of a residence; ambiguous spaces need somebody who watches over them so they do not become the home of stacked boxes but are dedicated to the delight of residents, visitors and staff; the uselessness of beauty needs people who take care of it.

Manuel Ocana showed us the beauty of the paradigm ‘may your wishes come true’ with the house for his mother-in-law. Erhard Kinzelbach designed a nursing home in Austria that created opportunities within strict building regulations.

Emi Kiyota takes on the role of a mediator, advocate and translator between the needs of the inhabitants, the community, the developers and the architects to make sure that the needs of the elders are heard and those who build for them understand those needs.

It looks like if the boomer generation is again an instigator of change. Their ‘aging power’ manifested in the social interest and the social need to rethink how we live old age and thus the way we live our daily lives.

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