Designing Tomorrow’s Ageless Community

Place matters, and it may matter more in older age than at any other stage of life. Where we live shapes the contours of our daily experience, determining our access to the things we want and need in our lives. In old age, when transportation can become a challenge, proximity to those things is more important than ever, and that's especially true when you include your community among those needs. In retirement, the people around you can be the difference-maker that allows you to fully leverage those three-plus decades after full-time work for an active, engaging life.

Global aging has given planners and real estate developers a new challenge: how to create communities that are age-ready. What's new about this challenge? After all, there have always been older people, and there are certainly already plenty of "retirement communities" and senior housing options. The disruptiveness of the world's rapidly aging demographics is not just about the increasing number of older people, however. It is about a population that has new expectations for old age — expectations that will determine how, where, and among whom tomorrow's older adults will chose to live.

More than any preceding generation, the baby boomers and Gen X have had nearly every aspect of life redesigned to improve each of their life stages. Schools had to be built and designed specifically to accommodate their numbers and interests. Homes were redesigned and made larger to accommodate their growing families, while indulging the desire of many boomer and Gen X parents for a larger "master" bedroom. Even automobiles were rethought to make life easier. The minivan, for instance, is a lifestyle vehicle built to accommodate multitasking lives that involve work, shopping, kids, and home ownership. Throughout their lives, tomorrow's retirees have experienced design, technology, and service innovations that have consistently provided transformative improvements in lived experience. Don't assume they'll expect anything less in older age. The next generation to retire will demand significant improvements on the homes, communities, and lifestyles that its parents experienced in retirement.

The sheer size of the next retiree cohort will certainly drive sales in "active aging developments" and senior housing options, but it is unclear as to whether today’s 50-plus communities or senior housing options will tap the full market potential of the largest generation ever to retire. This cohort will expect homes that are convenient, yet able to provide homecare across their lifespans; communities that are accessible and supportive, yet stimulating and engaging; and activities and services that provide what is needed, as well as experiences that can excite and delight.

My recent article, Mapping the Community of the Future, provides a conceptual, fun, and slightly provocative interactive map of a future community that is age-ready and ageless because it is designed to be exciting for everyone across the lifespan. This hypothetical community is designed around four age-ready livable community principles, which I have dubbed “AIDA.” These include:

Activities that are both needed (e.g., health care, food shopping, maybe a repair depot for your home’s robot) as well as desired (e.g., dining out on occasion) are a key component of the age-ready community of the future. More than just golf courses, there are places to garden and hike, intergenerational learning centers, 3D-printing outlets, even a Teflon four-season skating rink.  

Intensity relates to the verve of the community. There is enough diversity of places and experiences to excite, delight, and engage residents every day, such as a four-season farmers market and plenty of places for critical foods such as ice cream. Moreover, retirement does not necessarily mean a complete absence of work; it may mean part-time work, a new career, or volunteering. Intergenerational workplaces that facilitate continuing contribution, learning, and mentoring are an added feature to the landscape and lifestyle.

Density ensures that activities, housing, and services are all within easy reach via walking, biking, or a personal neighborhood electric vehicle provided by the local mobility-sharing services. Housing options are integrated throughout and include smaller single-family homes as well as multifamily affordable options, all near green spaces that encourage exercise, walking, and the chance to meet a friend.

Accessibility has two faces in the community of the future — physical and digital. Accessible transportation is throughout, ensuring mobility by tram, bike, foot, or scooter. Plenty of benches provide opportunities to rest during a leisurely walk, as well as a chance to chat with friends. However, in the age of on-demand services and the Internet of Things, accessibility also includes the integration of sharing and on-demand services that might include home care or healthcare. Delivery of packages may be picked up at any one of several drone-drop areas that are positioned throughout, making it possible to zone the drone traffic while forcing people to walk out into the community rather than stay in and wait for the ‘bot at the door.

The community of the future map is certainly not a complete vision. It is meant to provoke lifestyle questions, design concepts, technology assumptions, and investment choices. With any luck, it will challenge readers to think creatively about how and where they want to live tomorrow. Moreover, it might just show that communities designed well are communities for everyone of every age.

MIT AgeLab’s Luke Yoquinto contributed to this article.

Image from Shutterstock

Got a question for a real NASA astronomer? Ask it here!

NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller is coming back to Big Think to answer YOUR questions! Here's all you need to know to submit your science-related inquiries.


Big Think's amazing audience has responded so well to our videos from NASA astronomer and Assistant Director for Science Communication Michelle Thaller that we couldn't wait to bring her back for more!

And this time, she's ready to tackle any questions you're willing to throw at her, like, "How big is the Universe?", "Am I really made of stars?" or, "How long until Elon Musk starts a colony on Mars?"

All you have to do is submit your questions to the form below, and we'll use them for an upcoming Q+A session with Michelle. You know what to do, Big Thinkers!

Keep reading Show less

Why eating ice cream is linked to shark attacks

Why are soda and ice cream each linked to violence? This article delivers the final word on what people mean by "correlation does not imply causation."

  • Ice cream consumption is actually linked to shark attacks.
  • But the relationship is correlative, not causal.
  • It's pretty stunning how media outlets skip over this important detail.
Keep reading Show less
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The tongue-in-cheek petition, whose stated aim is to reduce the national debt, has been signed more than 8,600 times as of Tuesday.
  • Selling Montana, the fourth largest state in the country, would constitute the largest land deal since the Louisiana Purchase.
  • The national debt is often a source of concern for individuals, but the chances of the U.S. defaulting on its debts are relatively low — in part because the bulk of the national debt is owned by the American public.
Keep reading Show less

The answer to Skynet? A democratically controlled supermind.

The plan to stop megacorps from owning superintelligence is already underway.

  • A.I. technology is often developed within the proprietary silos of big tech companies. What if there was an open, decentralized hub for A.I. developers to share their creations? Enter SingularityNET.
  • The many A.I.s in the network could compete with each other to provide services for users but they could also cooperate, giving way to an emergent-level mind: artificial general intelligence.
  • SingularityNET is powered by blockchain technology, meaning whatever 'digital organism' emerges will not be owned or controlled by any one person, company or government.
Keep reading Show less