Are you a yuppie? A swinging single? An empty nester? A suburbanite with spouse, children, pets and mortgage? Maybe you're a retiree struggling to make ends meet with a meager pension, Social Security benefits and Medicare.
Whatever category you fall into, there's a housing type somewhere that's been designed and built just for you. Indeed, over the past couple of decades, developers and architects have become sophisticated at identifying segments of the population with special housing needs. Essential characteristics of these targeted markets include age, marital and family status, income, education, profession or employment, and social status.
Developers always have built a variety of housing in American cities and suburbs, but they used to assume a more homogenous, adaptable market population. The primary design variables, reflected mostly in price or rental levels, were The elderly prefer to live in environments in which they feel more secure, both from intruders and from the risks of bodily injury. unit size, qualities of detailing and finish and density -- from single family to row house to walkup to high rise.
In recent years, expanding anthropological, sociological, economic and demographic scholarship has more revealingly illuminated our culture and its population. To describe people as rich or poor, young or old, single or married, black or white is no longer sufficient to characterize behavior or predict environmental needs. Today's informed citizens expect their dwellings to "fit" better, to accommodate their personal idiosyncrasies, to be less universally adaptable.
From a housing point of view, few population subgroups have been scrutinized more than the elderly. The elderly represent not only a significant percentage of our total population, but also a percentage that is increasing rapidly. This trend is likely to continue as life expectancy rises.
The elderly both control and consume a large share of our national wealth -- "gray power" is a meaningful aphorism economically and politically. Most important, no matter who you are now and how you might be demographically classified today, you eventually will be one of the nation's elderly. It's a market here to stay.
Yet housing for the elderly has become a serious problem because people no longer dwell together as extended families with several generations constituting one household under one roof. On the contrary, modern mobility -- social, economic and geographic -- has facilitated family fragmentation. Younger generations often feel little or no obligation to accept responsibility for their parents, who they assume will take care of themselves. Failing that, there's always the government or some charitable organization.
Some of the elderly in America are affluent. But many find themselves at or near the poverty level. Some are healthy and robust, but many are not. Some live with spouses or other companions, but millions live alone. Most have worked hard all of their lives and feel that, at the very least, they should be able to rent or purchase shelter that is safe, secure and comfortable.
Government, nonprofit institutions and private developers devoted considerable attention and resources to building housing for the elderly before the 1980s, when aging was the focus of intense sociological and behavioral research. Both study and experience produced new architectural and urban-design thinking.
What makes elderly housing special and how does it relate to the rest of the community? Should there even be "elderly housing," a term which, to some, connotes segregation, the imposition of a kind of architectural and urban quarantine?
*Location. The elderly are often less mobile. Many no longer drive, and some who do shouldn't. Therefore, otherwise self-sufficient elderly prefer living in areas convenient to public transportation and shopping, especially for routine services, commodities and food. The ideal home would be within walking distance of such facilities. Also, proper nutrition is sometimes a problem as regular shopping and cooking, especially for one, becomes difficult. Living near affordable restaurants may be important as well.
* Security. As people age and faculties diminish, so does physical self-confidence. Reflexes slow, strength and endurance decrease and sensory acuteness drops. With this comes a natural desire to avoid physically threatening situations. As a result, the elderly prefer to live in environments in which they feel more secure, both from intruders and from the risks of bodily injury.
* Commodity. Conditions that cause the elderly to worry about personal security also point to other limitations not as important to younger people. Diminished manual dexterity, often related to arthritis, can make it extremely difficult to operate conventional, everyday devices such as handles on water faucets, doors and windows. Stairs may be onerous or even unhealthy for some elderly.
Most people shrink in height and lose agility with age. Thus, the heights of kitchen counters, cabinets, furniture and bathroom fixtures, standarized for the whole population, may not be appropriate for the aging. How often have you looked in a mirror over a bathroom lavatory, seeing only what's above your eyebrows? How many times have you felt you were taking your life in your hands climbing in or out of an ordinary bathtub? Ambient comfort. As you age, you become more sensitive to temperature, humidity and air quality. Older people, therefore, want more control of the atmosphere they live in and are less able to tolerate, both physiologically and emotionally, deviations from their preferred comfort levels. While the senses of smell and taste may diminish, the ability to detect drafts seems to sharpen.
* Possessions and territory. With age, people become increasingly attached to certain "things" -- pieces of furniture, mementoes, books, works of art, clothing, ordinary household items -- with which they part reluctantly. The attachment may be based on necessity, but much of it stems from personal rememberance, sentiment and nostalgia. Such artifacts transcend materiality; they can manifest and symbolize a life. Therefore, to many aging elderly, a proper place for these things is important. Even if a place is actually too small to house the resident with all of his or her keepsakes, such a uniquely furnished domestic territory is nevertheless precious and sacred.
* Community and privacy. What about "concentrating" the elderly? For many reasons -- sharing the past, similar life styles, mutual needs, common attitudes toward contemporary culture, and the desire to be self-sufficient -- many of the elderly prefer the company of their peers. They dread dependence as much as they abhor solitude. Therefore, elderly housing works best when it creates a sense of shared identity and protected territory within, but not isolated from, the rest of the world. It must offer both community and privacy, the opportunity to choose to associate with friends and relatives, or to be alone.
Unfortunately, elderly housing is expensive. Until recently, most housing for the elderly in the United States benefitted from federal or state subsidies. As such assistance disappears, younger generations once again may find it necessary to extend their families, along with their houses, to shelter their elders.
NEXT: Types of elderly housing