9 ways to redesign (and rethink) retirement

Cherry Blossoms at Roberts Library/Lloyd Alter

It takes a community, not a wider hallway. From MNN, April, 2015

Shana Lynch at the Stanford School of Business wrote a fascinating article, Six reasons to rethink aging and retirement, which was picked up by Quartz and relabeled Six ways we need to redesign retirement for our longer lives. Because really, there’s a lot of design involved. Lynch quotes Laura Carstensen, the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity:

The culture we live in today, which evolved around lives half as long, does a pretty good job of supporting people up to 50, and then it stops. As we learn about aging, we’re finding that the malleability, the elasticity, the potential for people to age well is greater than ever previously imagined.

Indeed, I am writing this having just returned from lunch with two of my mom’s younger (mid-80-ish) friends; one (VK) just published her latest book of poetry that was short-listed for a major literary award; The other (FK) is practicing his sixth language, Russian, just for fun. I’m thinking about them as I read about those six reasons.

1. Mental health does not fall off a cliff when we get old.

Carstensen says “we need to stop conflating disease with aging; not everyone gets Alzheimers.” I’m learning that this is absolutely true. As noted, my luncheon hosts are writing books and learning languages. Until she had a tragic fall, my mom was reading everything and desperate to go to every gallery, feeling trapped because she couldn’t drive anymore.

2. Neither does physical health, and 3. We don’t need that much exercise (but we’re still not getting enough).

FK was told he needed to go on blood thinners; instead he started swimming three times a day, walking endlessly and watching his diet. But they live in a part of town where they have to drive absolutely everywhere, so they often drive to places where they can walk. For most seniors, losing the car is a life-changing crisis.

4. We have to work longer; 5. we have to save more money and 6. we need to redesign financial literacy

We used to live on average nine years into retirement. Soon we will be living on average 22 years after we stop working, yet almost nobody has put enough away. According to one study quoted by Starre Vartan, a third of us have little or no money put away for retirement. In fact, according to researcher Martha Deevey, 43 percent of people age 55 or older have less than $25,000 in retirement savings, and 14 percent of boomers have no retirement income at all. They are going to have no choice but to keep working. Retirement as a concept for most people no longer exists. It’s either working or being among the unemployed.

Perfect for gentleman (and woman) farmers of a certain age. (Photo: SPARK)

Who knows, perhaps they will all become farmers, like in this agriculture-minded retirement community Matt showed us. But in fact, none of these points raised so far have much to do with actual physical design that the Quartz title alluded to. So I will add a few points of my own:

7. We have to build walkable communities. 

In the 19th century, there were not a lot of life-extending drugs, but there was one very popular remedy: walking. Dickens walked 12 miles a day; Darwin did circuits around his property. According to Damon Young in the Guardian:

Every day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon, Darwin strolled and reflected amongst the privet and hazel, often alongside his fox terrier. Darwin had a little pile of stones on the path, and he kicked one with each turn: some ideas were four-pebble problems.

Walking keeps you fit, and unlike other sports, it gets you somewhere — to libraries, restaurants and doctors offices if you live in a community where you can do it. Instead, we force our seniors to drive until we trap them in their houses.

8. We have to think about building communities, not houses. 

My luncheon hosts bought their condo because they had a dog and they wanted a ground-floor apartment near a park. Now they borrow dogs, walking them for neighbors. They know everyone in the building, and he even practiced his languages with other residents. Everyone looks after everyone else. Their building has turned into what is known as a NORC, a naturally occurring retirement community. These are happening in lots of cities where there is sufficient density to provide support services.

9. We have to rethink design for aging in place.

I’m going to get in trouble for this because it’s counter to the accepted wisdom. Read any article about aging in place, and you find wide halls, giant bathrooms that you can swing a wheelchair around in, all in big ranch-style homes with one floor living. Look at Houzz on aging in place and you will see hundreds of photos of bathrooms as big as some tiny houses. You will find elevators in multistory homes and fit people using them. Everybody’s aging-in-place house is getting bigger and wider and farther from the neighbors, with bigger garages to accommodate wheelchair vans. Yet according to Carstensen, “Today most people believe that although we’re living more years, those later years are in poor health. The reality is, most of these extra years are healthy ones.” Only a small percentage of our aging homeowners will need those expensive, space-eating features, while the rest just need some exercise.

If you go to New York City, you will find thousands of 85-year-old ladies climbing three flights of stairs and shopping with their bundle buggies. They claim that those stairs, and the walk to the bodega, are what’s keeping them healthy. In fact, we need to bring people closer together, not spread them apart with ever-bigger bathrooms in bungalows. Climbing some stairs might not be a bad thing for some people, and it might keep them out of wheelchairs. (Isn’t that better than designing our houses for living in wheelchairs?)

Isolation kills. Lack of exercise kills. Yet we seem to be designing our cities to maximize both. It’s time for a redesign.


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