The answer might surprise you, and you’re not alone. The United States is severely age-segregated, yet it flies below the radar, even as our aging population grows larger than before, every single day. The only lasting age-integrated institutions in our country are religion and family, a predicament that has social consequences for all. Family structures are changing from wide, with many children and shorter lives, to vertical, with fewer siblings and more generations alive simultaneously. Of course, this emerging family structure shift will change the ways we live and how we choose to interact and care for each other. We must make sure older adults are not neglected but included in the fabric of society. When we cease to reach out our hands to other generations, we all lose.
When designing community infrastructure in the 20th century, autonomy was the value driving planning. Most Americans’ goal was independence. While we continue to clutch our freedom tightly, we recognize now that urban design and housing options fail us if they stop there. The needs for the 21st century are different; a loneliness epidemic soars, deep age segregation remains largely invisible, and families are dispersed across the country and globe. Throughout recent decades, families have spread further for work and education opportunities more than ever. This trend helps individuals in many ways, but not without consequences on community and family networks. Urban planning-wise, across the country retirement centers and nursing homes were often designed away from walkable city centers, cutting off residents from daily community engagement. Today, older adults voice a desire to ‘Age in Place,’ and community architects have to creatively plan how to support our growing aging population. To adapt to our changing needs now, connectedness must be a part of the equation.