Wait – Am I Old? The Coming Reinvention of Senior Living and Working

The year 2030 marks an important demographic turning point in history according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 National Population Projections. By 2030, all Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1965) will be older than age 65. This will expand the size of the older population so that 20% of Americans and 23% of Canadians will be retirement age.

The current population age 65 and over is approximately 50 million in the U.S. and 6 million in Canada and is projected to double by 2060.

“The aging of baby boomers means that within just a couple decades, older people are projected to outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history,” said Jonathan Vespa, a demographer with the U.S. Census Bureau.

The fastest growing age group in the United States is the population aged 85 and older which is projected to more than double from 6.4 million in 2016 to 14.6 million in 2040. That’s only 20 years from now.

This should not come as a surprise – after all, we’ve known this since 1946. Barring natural disasters, pandemics and war, population demographics are highly predictable. The need for senior housing will follow the population trend and not just demand more housing but different kinds of accommodation to reflect the needs and desires of a diverse population.

Children born in 2007 or later have a 50 percent chance of living beyond 104 years of age. According to M.I.T.’s Age Lab, as people are living longer, retirement planning as we know it is being replaced by longevity planning, a concept that requires holistic thinking from the individual, family and societal perspectives.

Retirement once meant leaving the workforce to pursue leisure activities, but today’s aging population is reinventing life after 65. Age Lab is exploring the power of place in the environment as well as business strategies and government policies to develop solutions for aging successfully. New technologies, such as robotics and telemedicine will extend the safety and independence of older adults.

An average of 10,000 boomers turn 65 each day. But the Pew Research Centre calculated last July that the Baby Boomer labor force has been shrinking by only 6000 per day since 2010. That’s because while some chose to retire early or were forced out of the labor force early, on average, the Boomers are working longer than the previous two generations did and plan to stay in the labor force longer, assuming the economy permits it.

The COVID-19 pandemic will have a significant effect on the attitudes of and towards seniors in our communities. Forbes writer Janet Novack writes that eventually the economy and the stock market will recover and COVID-19 will be contained. Yet the current pandemic and its economic consequences could devastate the retirement prospects of some Baby Boomers, while permanently changing the attitudes of many more.

Novack asks us to consider this: After years of hearing how 60 is the new 40, Boomers are now being told that they have weaker immune systems and face greater risk from COVID-19, particularly if they have certain other care-related health problems. About a fifth of Boomers provide eldercare, either in person or remotely, to a parent or other family member. Suddenly, the dream of a long, healthy and independent retirement feels at risk.

Much has been written about the damaging effects of social isolation on health and wellbeing, especially on adults older than 65. According to a paper in the Journal of Applied Gerontology, the detrimental effects of social isolation are related not only to mental health and emotional wellbeing but also to physical health and functioning, increasing incidences of dementia, coronary heart disease and stroke to a level similar to the adverse effects of obesity, smoking and air pollution.

And then came COVID-19. Instead of developing programs to re-engage seniors in their communities and with each other, we now insist that they remain at home or in their care communities, with limited or no interaction with others. While we hope that this situation will not last, there is no way of determining the long-term effects of enforced isolation on this already vulnerable demographic.

Today’s senior has generally had wide-ranging life experiences – career, travel, adventure, friends, exposure to diverse cultures – and will not be content with the “nursing home” environments that were the lot of our grandparents. Ideally, seniors want to live near their friends and families and in a setting that is familiar to them.

For example, seniors that spend most of their lives in a large city with many amenities do not want to be warehoused in the suburbs. The specter of a senior living facility is so daunting to many seniors that they will resist moving out of their homes at all costs and despite the pleas of their children. Ironically, in the midst of a housing crisis, it’s not unusual to find an elderly individual still living alone in a large family home.

The challenge for designers and architects is to create communities where seniors will want to live, not just have to live. Safety and security are essential, but wellness – emotional, physical and intellectual – are necessary for a long and engaged later life. The difference between an institution and a community is relationships – with each other and with family, friends and staff. Many new senior living communities are providing better opportunities for an intergenerational lifestyle, with positive results.

In the past and to an extent, currently, functional and efficient planning and accommodation of staff needs and equipment, has driven the design of seniors’ communities. However, the future user group (Baby Boomers) will not be satisfied with that and will demand a higher level of design and quality. We will see a movement from staff-driven design to user-driven design. Designers, as advocates, will step up to this challenge and will lead us into the future of senior living.

Carol Jones is a Principal at Kasian Architecture in Vancouver, BC. She has over 40 years of experience, with a focus on design for the high-performance workplace. Carol has served on the boards of professional associations at the National and International level, as President of IIDA and on the Boards of CIDQ and CIDA. She is currently the President of Interior Designers of Canada (IDC). She is a regular speaker on topics of Business and Professional Development, has been inducted into the College of Fellows of three professional associations and was awarded an honourary Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.) by Kwantlen University in British Columbia.