Designing for All Ages: Why It’s Time to Retire The American Dream

The current design solutions for our older citizens drive them crazy.

Neat, one-story houses with well-clipped lawns line the winding streets in this South Jersey retirement community. Others like it are popping up in the area with alarming frequency, creating lucrative business opportunities for those who serve the elderly. With names like Holiday City and Leisure Village, these developments are designed for people who once had active lives and now are looking for a retirement of ease and comfort, but end up awaiting the final and inevitable chapter, often alone. They have moved to this segregated settlement, perhaps in search of peace and quiet, perhaps to experience the dying American Dream of a little house in a bucolic suburb.

Each serviceable house, with its protective roof-overhang and generous windows, is fronted by a garage and entered via a front stoop. Those who live there are dependent on their cars for every move. Yet as the retirement years slip by, many can no longer drive, or are a danger to themselves and others when they do.

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Each time I visit the house my parents left to my sister and me I ask the cab driver for updates on what’s happening in the community: There was an accident on this corner, where a resident wrapped her car around the tree. There was a head-on collision with this particular cab at another corner, where the woman in the oncoming car pressed down the gas pedal while she seemed distracted by something she saw in her lap. (I mention women, because many who move here as couples end up as widows, meaning women easily outnumber the men.) But the most frequent and alarming report is about those many trips to liquor stores, about driving drunk passengers to and from this dreary task.

Here, then, is suburban planning for loneliness, boredom, isolation, segregation, lack of independence; including hard-to-access homes for those who use a cane or a wheelchair. When will we finally be ready to retire the old American Dream? When will we fully commit ourselves to drawing up a new covenant that brings people of all ages, incomes, and abilities in close proximity to one another and the services they require? When will our developers understand that people need people, that the generations need one another, and that life at any age isn’t about watching where the ambulance will stop on your street this time?

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