Five Incredible Highlights from The Environments For Aging Conference

By Jennifer Schlimgen, AIA, Vice President, and Kelly Gaglione, Executive Vice President, Kahler Slater

At the 2019 Environments for Aging Conference, we learned about the emerging technology, innovative housing models, and student previews of the future. Read on to find out a few of the highlights and learn why we’re intrigued and excited to bring these insights to our senior living clients.

Let’s start with the numbers. 72 million Americans will be 65 or older in the next 10 years, the highest number ever, and by 2032 there will be more Americans over the age of 65 than under 18, for the first time in the history of the US. Take a moment to let that sink in. How will our world change?

Our recent engagement in the Environments for Aging (EFA) Conference in Salt Lake City was an eye-opening experience. From architecture students dreaming about how the world will be different 60 years from now, to non-profit operators and for-profit developers debating the latest trends, this gathering brought an enormous amount of people, information and inspiring ideas together to address the looming challenge of our “Silver Tsunami,” with a goal of both healthy aging in place and aging in community. Read on for our FIVE favorite highlights:

1. Technology Will Impact Aging – In a Good Way

Keynote speaker Dr. Cori Lathan, a technology entrepreneur and founder of AnthroTronix, spoke about technology as an enabler for aging well, using examples from her work with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and offered these three summary insights:

  • We are ignoring the brain. We have no tool to measure brain health in regular medical care. The cost of ignoring brain health, responsible for 60% of deaths in the US is $47 trillion.
  • People want engaging technologies to support their health and lives as they grow older.
  • The Age Lab at MIT has identified the > 50 female cohort as the most powerful consumer, influencing 64% of all purchases. Women over 50 are more likely to make decisions for their aging parents. She also observed that designers of technology are primarily 27 and male. Sounds like there is an opportunity to bridge this gap!

The following trends illustrate Dr. Lathan’s view of a healthy future of human enhancement:

  • Benevolent cyborgs enhance aging by utilizing data responsibly to optimize home, community, and reduce loneliness—the #1 predictor of decline in the elderly.
  • Optogenetics use light to stimulate hearing and biofeedback to reduce stress. Brain stimulators and prosthetic devices will all be gamechangers. In 25 years, we can expect better function in hearing, vision and our joints.
  • Merged human and digital worlds will find many applications for social robots—Alexa, Jibo, Mabu —are “e-latives” that function as companions, while virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) will create shared experiences, like travel with friends and family.
  • Smart home technology is finding ways to track everything – from heart rate, to weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, eating habits, interaction level and sleeping habits (which predict changes in health), with a goal of establishing baseline and detecting changes over time. From “Alexa, I need help” to “Alexa, I need transportation to dinner tonight”, expect enhanced voice command, augmented therapy, digital memory support and freedom through autonomous vehicles. Seniors who are beginning to adopt these technologies in their homes will not want to downgrade when they move into other living arrangements.

2. Senior Housing and Care Models are Abundant and Evolving

The ongoing debate continues of whether to segregate or include those with memory loss in congregate housing. Many unique projects are underway such a Village of Hope in Pennsylvania, Minka Tiny Homes for Elders, a M.A.G.I.C. community. Numerous cost-effective co-housing (merging multiple generations) and other innovative senior housing model examples were shared throughout the conference including:

  • Thistle Down Co-Housing, (an EFA award winner designed by SFCS) operated by Gardenspot, the first one story five-bedroom home of a five home shared neighborhood adjacent to a Continuing Care Retirement Community in New Holland, PA
  • Co-Living apps. Millennials have a different view of housing than many seniors do. Today 70% of millennials rent their housing, vs. owning a home. They value small housing, allowing them to be mobile, travel, and be sustainable. Seniors and Millennials might be good housing companions. How will housing choices change as Millennials get married and have children? Co-Living apps abound for Millennials but there may be a market here for baby boomers as well.
    • Common
    • Ollie
    • Open Door
    • Properties Management Group
    • WeLive
    • For example, Nesterly – an app where seniors offer rooms to students and can offer a discount for services if they can do some chores. These home share programs aim for a win/win, matching two generations facing loneliness and high housing costs.
  • Durham Central Park Co-Housing (ages 50-80) provides 850-1750 SF units for individuals and families living in an urban, intentional community in downtown Durham, NC within easy walking distance of the Farmers' Market, Carolina Theater, the library, the YMCA, restaurants, shops, parks, only a couple of miles from Duke University and its famous Medical Center.
  • Swan’s Market in Oakland, CA, a registered historical building built in 1917, and today is a popular community gathering place in Old Oakland.
  • North Street in Davis, CA, where residents didn’t leave their homes but merged their backyards and dedicated one home as a common main house.
  • Accessible Dwelling Units (ADUs) or alley houses, originated from European Immigrants in the 1830’s, add small dwellings adjacent to larger ones. There has been a recent surge in changing zoning laws to permit this in Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco Bay Area, Portland and Santa Cruz. Portland offers bike tours once a year to advertise this “expanding architecture of choice.”

3. It Takes a Village – To Age Well

Keynote speaker, Susan Pinker, author of The Village Effect, shared her Blue Zone longevity research on the island of Sardinia. The #1 MOST important predictor of health and longevity is our network of face to face social integration (the people you meet in your neighborhood when you walk your dog). Our bodies release beneficial hormones (such as oxytocin) as a result of interpersonal interactions. The second most important predictor of health and longevity is your network of close intimate relationships. The lowest rates of dementia are found in people who are most socially engaged. These findings really make the case for not aging in isolation—alone in the suburbs— and show why we should care about the previously mentioned interesting housing alternatives.

One strategy to combat isolation as we age is to build “third spaces” – social hubs that are neither home nor work. Bryant Park and Times Square (the small triangle of land in the center of all the neon) in NYC have become such spaces in recent years. These areas are gathering places that can increase our social integration and networks of secondary contacts.

4. We Can Learn New Tricks

Senior years can also be a time of learning and retooling for a new career. Seniors are the fastest growing population of workers, with two times as many seniors as teenagers currently employed in the United States. Companies like BMW and CVS are increasing flexibility and improving their work environments to retain more workers, avoiding the huge inevitable knowledge gap as baby boomers retire. Continuing education for seniors is growing dramatically worldwide:

  • University of Minnesota Advanced Careers Program, has seniors live on campus while they retool for a second career in social services.
  • In China, over 3% of the population over 60 are enrolled in universities.
  • In the US, 2.3M students in post high school programs are between ages 40 and 64.

5. Students Preview the Future

Lastly – the Student 2080 Design Challenge! Dr. Keith Diaz Moore, AIA, Dean of Architecture and Planning and faculty member Brenda Sheer, University of Utah, shared highlights from student assumptions about Aging, Architecture and Urban Life in 2080, the year these students will turn 65. Students worked in pairs to envision the future of intergenerational and technologically advanced communities that have evolved to accommodate members of the boomer generation as well as generations X, Y and all to follow. Students were asked to help us prepare for this emerging new world where technologies support all ages as the classic 1950 U.S. population pyramid changes form dramatically, with the population of seniors transforming from the smallest point on the top to the broadest platform of an anvil. Their assumptions are fascinating. Some of us near senior status today will be reminded of The Jetson’s of the 60’s:

  • Transportation will involve self-driving and/or flying cars, or very fast mass transit.
  • IoT Smart Cities will be embedded with sensors, technology and services, gathering a huge amount of data about citizens and monitoring infrastructure.
  • Gene therapy, where gene splicing occurs at birth or pre-birth and regenerative therapies will help us avoid degenerative diseases and extend life expectancy – perhaps to 120!
  • Leisure/work balance – in 2080 we will still have work, but we will have more time for leisure. The function of work will be to create our identity that reflects our passions and effects health and happiness.
  • And, not surprising, not all predictions were rosy. In 2040-2050, students predict environmental collapse and much greater control over personal behavior as a result. There will be a large number of climate refugees who have to move to survive as the sea level rises two to three feet, eliminating an enormous amount of coastal housing and riverside settlements world-wide.

Student solutions for multi-generational housing included:

  • Stall Housing, the Solution to the Parking Garage, where parking-stall-tiny houses include self-washing kitchens and baths and a louvered window wall that converts to a patio.
  • An arts and culture approach to preserving our humanity, with a multi-dome wellness center, where advances in nanobot technology create microbots that assemble any kind of physical activity space residents can imagine, from rock climbing walls to concert halls.
  • Greenhouses stacked in towers, where climate refugees will create the need for denser living and all rooftops will be green public space, where mass ride-share facilities stack flying cars and The Studio becomes a place of education and craft.

The students’ 2080 report summary really says it all: “Living to age 120, augmented and virtual reality, smart cities, flying cars, 3D printed prosthetics, not having to work, a better environment with alternative forms of energy – oh my!” Stay tuned. It’s going to be a fascinating ride.

To discuss our Environments For Aging Conference Findings or talk about how these insights can be incorporated into your work, contact Jess Elkins.