Redesign Mainstreet.Forget Shady Acres. (Part 2)

aging place social connection well-being Nov 13, 2015
map of downtown area with point of interest icons

Carlota might be the most well-read person I ever met. Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, among others, seem to be her friends. She seemed to literally exist in some of her favorite books.

Carlota was an older neighbor growing up. Sadly, outside of her housekeeper, my mom, sister and I seemed to be the only other people that visited her. She lived in a single family home in the suburbs but was invisible to many. At some point along the way, she would have had a better life in a different living environment.


About 75% of people 65 and older live in the suburbs and the vast majority of these people live in single family homes. One challenge is that many of these older homes were not designed with older adults in mind. There are complications related to stairs, antiquated bathrooms and kitchens, and other features of older homes. It can be complicated and expensive to retrofit. Home maintenance is a hassle and often expensive; some costs, such as for a new roof, can be substantial and unexpected – not good for people on fixed income. These homes are often not energy efficient and equipping them with the latest technology can be very challenging and, sometimes, not feasible.

But challenges extend beyond the physical environment. Most suburban homes are not close to services and amenities; they were designed with the car in mind. Therefore, people need to drive to Main Street or The City often to get things they need. This distance coupled with the geographic dispersion of single family homes makes it difficult for services to be delivered efficiently to the home.

But the biggest challenge is that of isolation: individual isolation. Researchers tells us that isolation is more dangerous to your health than smoking.

As neighborhoods change, social networks change and it is not unusual for older adults to not be as socially connected as they once were. This was certainly the case with Carlota.


Carlota had no interest in moving from her home. There were a few reasons, but perhaps the biggest reason was that she couldn’t imagine moving miles away to live just with old people. She got a thrill when our young family would visit; she didn’t want to lose this connection. See, she couldn’t fathom moving into Shady Acres.



The primary option we provide for older adults is Shady Acres, the retirement home miles away on the hill where all the old people live. Here, even more so than a suburban home, you are far away from Main Street and The City. It just doesn’t feel like home. For many, there can be a sense of giving up control. Even just giving up.

But the challenges go beyond location and mindset. Shady Acres often tries to recreate Main Street. There are multiple dining venues, beauty salons, programming spaces and so on. It’s expensive to build and even more expensive to staff and maintain. Correspondingly, it is expensive to live in Shady Acres. Particularly as we enter an era where pensions are less prevalent, few people can afford Shady Acres.

But the biggest problem is that it is separate and apart from society. It’s all old people. See the biggest challenge is also isolation: institutional isolation.


What if we flipped things upside down? What if, instead of being far away, we created housing environments for grown ups that were amidst people of all ages? What if, instead of having people on their own for services or paying for bundled services they didn’t want or need, we created a way for services to come when they were needed? What if, instead of dated single family homes or outmoded floorplans at Shady Acres, we created an attractive, forward thinking built environment that support health & well-being?

What if we could trade isolation for connection?

What would “Sunny Mid-Rise” look like in walkable, mixed-use, intergenerational environment?

We’ll explore this further next month.


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