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BoomTown: The Promise of ‘Ageless Thinking’ 

Image © Gensler

This blog is part of a series, BoomTown, examining how we design communities for all ages.

“As a society, we tend to believe that each generation is an insular one, and that the interests of each are unique and separate from those of others. But now more than ever, people young and old must join forces to address problems that affect both of their communities.” Michael Eisner

Every year around my birthday, I reflect on the past year and think about my future: what do I want to accomplish, who do I want to be surrounded by, and where do I want to be? This year, however, is a little different. I turn 55 and the deluge of retirement planning and AARP membership mailings are piling up.

We now know that increased longevity is integrally related to our mental and physical fitness and emotional wellness. This knowledge is one reason why so many people are making a concerted effort to live healthy, emotionally connected lifestyles, and it is changing the way we think about our futures. Choice in how we live as we age during these bonus years becomes paramount when we consider the diversity of those around us and technologies that affect our daily activities and the desire to have a rich, fulfilling life. However, lifestyle choices as we age are stuck in the past. It’s time for new thought and action to shift the paradigm of aging— how and where we live, work play and care—so that we can finally transcend traditional approaches to building communities.

In 1979, my father was the director of a nursing home in Ohio. While in high school, I volunteered at his “home” on Thursdays. My afternoons were filled with lively antidotes from many amazing people, as I wheeled patients to and from physical therapy and activities. It was a delight to hear their amazing stories, but sad to realize they were confined to one room in one building with the same people almost every day.

Years later, my father became the director of a retirement community, much farther outside the downtown inner-city nursing home. There, I visited him at work and toured the beautiful grounds, which later became his home as he retired. I was fortunate that when my father passed away in 2004, he was surrounded by caring people who knew him and his dedication to others as they aged.

Fast forward to a meeting with Willow Valley Retirement Communities in Lancaster, Penn. Their leadership asked Gensler to refresh their brand to reflect what they called “Ageless Thinking”—a term I had not yet heard. I, of course, was thrilled to be working along-side forward-thinking people who shared my father’s passion. I was intrigued by the idea of being ageless. For the next year, Gensler partnered with Willow Valley to position their communities for today’s seniors. One recommendation was to drop “retirement” from Willow Valley Retirement Communities to Willow Valley Communities. They now focus on a “Life Lived Forward.” Even simple word shifts begin can address the ‘age-old’ problem with our language surrounding age.

Image © Gensler

It struck me that 30 years have passed and very little has changed. Seniors still have few options beyond retrofitting a home to age in place or seeking out the perfect, affordable retirement community somewhere in suburbia. As much as I appreciate 55+ communities that offer seniors great care and surrounding beauty, I see a void in choice beyond the traditional, segregated senior community model.

According to the World Health Organization, the world population age 60 and over is projected to increase from 900 million in 2015 to 2 billion in 2050. And in the U.S., the 65+ cohort will nearly double to 83.7 million. More older Americans will be healthier, active and pursuing alternate lifestyles. Many will continue to work, engage and mentor future generations, and support our growing economy. With ongoing leaps in service and medical technologies, our need for single-sourced care at a retirement community will no longer be needed by everyone. The future holds opportunities for a variety of alternative lifestyle choices. Our society will need to embrace our full spectrum of generations and develop age-integrated flexible environments where the elderly are once again considered “elders” and are a valuable, experienced resource to society.

Not only do we need to cross generational divides, we also need to unite across industries to fully integrate the successes of each field and their collective knowledge to develop new options for our changing lifestyles.

On Sept. 21, industry experts and cross-generational points of view will gather in Gensler’s Washington, D.C. office to build BoomTown—a mixed use, intergenerational, urban community that addresses both the physical and social architecture that will support our wants and needs throughout our lives. And over the next few weeks, we’ll share our thoughts on this new community paradigm and the transformational promise it holds for our individuals of all ages.

Laura Latham, senior associate, brings over 35 years of brand design experience to Gensler. She is an invaluable partner to her clients and seeks to fully understand her clients’ needs to create memorable, strategic design solutions that express their brand, whether it be through print and digital communications and/or the built environment. Laura is currently leading research regarding intergenerational community living with Gensler. Contact her at Laura_Latham @gensler.com.