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close this bookHabitat Debate - Vol. 5 - No. 2 - 1999 - Construction and Architecture (HABITAT, 1999, 60 p.)
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View the documentA Cross-Sectoral Approach to Housing for Older People

A Cross-Sectoral Approach to Housing for Older People

by Urs Peter Gauchat

In the industrialized world, there is a tendency to view populations according to three categories of productivity: the pre-productive, the productive and the post-productive. Children and adolescents fill the first category. Those fully engaged in the workforce comprise the second. The post-productive group are, by and large, sixty years old and over.

World-wide, the proportions between these segments of the populations are changing dramatically. Due to modern medical science and improved nutrition people are living many years beyond retirement age. The shift in proportion between segments of the population is creating an ever-increasing burden on those in the workforce who have to support an expanding group of the elderly. As longevity increases, the number of people living beyond retirement age will almost equal the number of people in the workforce.

No one ever questions the need to fully support and encourage the initial state of human development from birth to adolescence. Given a choice, most societies are more prepared to put resources into rearing the next generation as compared to catering to the aged. The increasing demand placed by the aged on common resources conflicts with other societal objectives and creates the predicament of pitting the needs of the young against those of the old.

“Warehousing” the Elderly

This undesirable situation accentuates the perception that older people are a burden on society, and creates a more marked division between the productive and post-productive groups. The solutions of many societies only deepen the rift. Often older people are “warehoused” in quasi-institutional settings in undesirable locations, frequently located outside of town. Quite often the elderly are segregated from society in large complexes which are disconnected from the community. In these situations older persons seem to be relegated to a state of animated suspension between the community and the graveyard.

The focus on the aged as a discrete and problematic population tends to create more disparity between the groups, and more disdain for the elderly as useless members of society. At present a panoply of specialists attend to the problem of aging, each with a unique perspective: gerontologists, medical professionals, social workers, mayors, planners and architects. All have a solution to part of the problem, at the expense of the whole human context.

Countries vary in their approach to dealing with an aging population. In socialist countries particularly, old age used to be seen as a deserved rest from a lifetime of work - an entitlement to enjoy the “golden years”. In capitalist countries, private pension systems combined with a strong social net have, in the past, provided adequate support to keep retirees well above subsistence level. The increasing emphasis on economic performance, efficiency, and short term benefits, and the desire to eliminate waste and redundancy has resulted in a coarser social net that allows more to slip through. As a result, the elderly in many countries are relegated to a marginal existence. Dignity, safety, and economic security are replaced by a battle for subsistence.


Older people are often “warehoused” in quasi-institutional settings in undesirable locations, segregated from society in large complexes.

© UNCHS/P.Wambu

Holistic Approach

It is dangerous to propose general solutions to the problem of supporting an aging population, in the context of a wide divergence of local approaches and conditions. Nevertheless, there are some fundamental principles which address all aspects of the problem. All involve a holistic, systemic approach to counteract the dehumanizing effects of the segregation of the elderly. Each one requires that societies expand their accounting system to include a wide range of needs and costs. In the new accounting system, “productive” would come to describe many important services the elderly are suited to perform, producing an expectation and perception that people can contribute to society well beyond retirement age.

The principles are:

· Integration: housing the elderly in physical proximity to a vital community, including all segments of society.

· Engagement: providing the necessary impetus for making full use of the capabilities, experience, expertise, intellect and heart of the elderly.

· Opportunities for Contribution: arranging for a deliberate matching of capabilities of older persons with genuine needs within the community.

Although full participation in society probably does not prolong life, it will nevertheless significantly increase the time period during which the elderly can live independently; it also adds significantly to their sense of being useful and to their quality of life. In addition, voluntary societal contributions by older persons all have monetary value; they can make a critical difference to the delivery of childcare, to the mentoring of elementary and secondary school students, to opening hours in the library, or to the upkeep of a public park. It means that a community could potentially increase the overall quality of life by harnessing and focusing the resources represented by older persons.

The following planning principles would ensure that housing for the elderly allows for integration, engagement, and opportunities for contribution:

· Dispersed throughout the community in aggregations of no more than twenty to thirty units. Not situated in undesirable areas, or as a land use of last resort.

· Within walking distance of desirable amenities - churches, libraries, museums, places of higher education, athletic facilities, kindergarten, etc.

· Attached to opportunities for contribution - combined with a kindergarten, or a library for instance.

· Easily accessible by public transportation and in close proximity to the residents' original communities to allow for frequent visits from friends and relatives, especially other older people.

· A visual fit with local housing - in order that the elderly do not feel stigmatized or segregated.

To allow the elderly to live independently at a fraction of the cost of institutionalization, housing would optimally meet the specific physical and psychological needs of the elderly, with:

· Availability of at-home medical help, social services, and special transportation.

· Suitability for wheel-chair use and handicapped accessibility - or at least capable of being retrofitted at low cost of ADA compliance.

· A high degree of security - older people are not only more anxious, but they fall easier prey to those with ill intent.

· Proximity to the residents' community of origin - the elderly find it difficult to acclimatize to an unfamiliar community.

It is important to recognize the burgeoning elderly population as a creeping crisis. Even if we cannot undo some of the unfortunate solutions perpetrated in the past, we can nevertheless attempt to build only fully integrated housing for older persons from now on. The right kind of housing built in the right place will allow older members of society to participate, contribute, and add to the enjoyment of life by young and old alike.

In order to assess the full economic costs of an aging population one needs to balance all the costs with all the benefits. We can ill afford to warehouse and institutionalize an increasing segment of the population. The present segregated housing for older persons either provides substandard accommodation or else draws a high level of duplication of amenities which are readily available at no extra costs within the community. If society takes a systemic, cross-sectoral approach to the problems of an aging population, which addresses simultaneously perception, economics and quality of life, and assures that the elderly are integrated into society, engaged as important contributors, and given opportunities to interact productively, the contributions of older people can help to offset the cost to society of providing economic support and of building smarter housing. As an outcome, the quality of life will be improved for all sectors of society.

Urs Peter Gauchat is the Dean of the School of Architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, U.S.A.