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AGING (in place) – The Coping Quotient

October 15, 2015


a 4 story home for fit Boomers that has an elevator shaft preframed into its design for easy retrofit

Like it or not, we are all aging. Every minute of every day. For the first 20 years its a growth experience. The next 40 its a performance ethic. From then on, for almost all of us our lives have a coping quotient.

Eyes are often the first to betray the fact we are not machines: long before any age that could be described as “middle” any number of us find it hard to see distantly without an Impressionistic overlay. But then, and in a age-fueled cascade restaurant menus become written in tiny fur balls and the light in the room seems to have had a brown out.

The jog that was once made without thought now has a partner: Ibuprophen. Getting out of a chair or bed has an electric freeze and wince in pain. As menopause ebbs and the the mating imperative needs less expression, our bodies seem to be based less on sex and more on safety.

The shift in our lives into longevity is a total luxury.

The Greatest Generation smoked and sat themselves to earlier graves than even the mid-century state of medicine could have offered. The Greatest Generation spawn, we Boomers have buried a lot of Greatest Generation parents: and have been their final coping mechanism. Longegevity is not irrelevance as we thought as we protested against everything in our hey day, its a blessing and a threat.

Now that we are slipping into inevitable cellular shifts to wrinkles, less and/or grey hair (often in bizarre locations) and the lost eyeglasses or keys we are less interested in leaving a beautiful corpse, but rather a fit and mentally present one.

Our deeptest fear has shifted from being unloved – (for by now, most of us are deeply embedded with others) – into being mortally afraid of becoming the Walking Dead: physically functional, but mentally returned to a state of infancy. Diapers, awake every few hours, unable to feed ourselves, being rolled around, incommunicative, completely out if it. Its a rational fear, that, because we are human, has an irrational level of compensations and expectations.

I am dealing with all of this as a 60 year old who has buried my two Mad Men parents, as has my wife. But I am dealing with all of these fears, copings and compensations with scores of other unrelated humans as an architect. Since my very first Master-Bedroom-Down renovation design, ramp accommodation, then elevator grew into hundreds of new homes and renovations over the last 35 years, serving both Greatest Generation and Boomer clients, I begin to sense an arc or accommodation that is only partially architectural.

To be human is to cope: we have no fur, no weaponized teeth, not even great hearing or eyesight. But we do have the Giant Coping Machine of our brains: we either use them to solve present and potential issues, or we don’t at our peril.

Although woefully reductionist, here are the groupings of coping as I am experiencing them: the first group is ebbing to a trickle: although right now, this week I am designing a 3 floor beachside walk-up house for a fit, smart and thoughtful 70 year old who has conscious rejected universal design in favor of smart design for reasonable accommodation with elevator, wheelchair swings or ramps.


1)Crisis management/triage/brinksmanship.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the traditional mantra of most Greatest Generation seniors as lifestyle accelerators meant death closer to 70 than 80, and mid-century medicine often meant a toggle-switched “OFF” to the “ON” of pre-“old age” status: reliance of hospitals, the safe harbor of relatives, or simply dropping dead meant long term accommodation of future disability was time and money spent for a narrow window of living in the pre-decreditude state. Fewer and fewer boomers have the cavalier attitude about giving up autonomy in a world were preventative medicine and interventionist therapies have pushed life expectancies to 80 and beyond, and “spry elderly” are are growing demographic, where a little exercise and a bit of self-control mean the quality of life expectation has soared in the last decade.

2) Preparing for the worst (only).

Living in an ever-reducing footprint within the McMansion or 4 bedroom condo while doing little else except readying the downstairs den for a possible bed or asking a contractor if a shower can be added to the Powder Room seems reasonable if your cash is crunched, resale means owing a bank money, or you just have “better” things to do. Light research on what would be needed if a hip is broken or a ventricle ceases to pump is not so much for planning as it is for perspective “if” is not “when” but its also a notch above “I will worry about it when something happens”.

3) Due Diligence/Active Anticipation.

Most people that contact architects and contractors fall into this group: they have cared for or buried their parents, have friends or relatives had their lives get turned upside down by the debilitation of loved ones and their consequences offer stark lessons. The able-bodied Boomers search thru all cosy-benefot options: sometimes selling the family home that helped rear your kids at a paper loss can overcome that quick one-time write-off with decades of reduced utility, maintenance and out year new use requirement accommodation. Creating one-story living can be impossible in certain homes on certain sites. Building new can be prohibitively expensive. Leaving the neighbors, icons and patterns of a lifetime may just be too emotionally costly – so many, if not most diligent, able-bodied but ego-projecting Boomers want maximum control even if they are staying put: so they master-plan, strategically implement and value-engineer their funding to get immediate needs taken care of, but potentials planned for and often accommodated: pathways for ramps, space to shower, ease of storage, cooking while sitting, light (natural and artificial) useful for fading vision are all part of a balancing act of time, money and focus.

4) Overthinking.

Spending $30K to put in an elevator might not make sense if you are running 10K’s, or it could be extreme to move to a sad condo because mowing the lawn is a scary thought, but channeling an extreme irrational fear of losing control needs to be quelled if you want to have a happy life. Realistic spending can net longterm savings: If you just can’t see spending 20% of your fixed income on heat or cooling, foam insulation might be a good idea. Fear of slipping in the shower may just mean grab bars come now, not later. Getting out of the weather to get into your home may mean a new entry rooflet or a garage addition. Sometimes just finding out that fears can be answered with facts ends the worst fears.

Its a very strange place to be longing to live long enough so that coping is a positive outcome. Everyone of us is still, somewhere, 16. Even through the thickest lens the rest of the world looks and sounds just like it did 50 years ago. But we are changing, 24/7/365. All of us. The questions for Boomers are not the same for our children or surviving parents, but there are, for every generation, deep, abiding, disquieting questions.

And it never hurts to ask for help.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Janice Gruendel permalink
    October 15, 2015 8:59 am

    I will admit to being a teeny bit elder to Duo but we are definitely of the same generation. Growing older (while scary also beats the heck out of the alternative) is best approached right smack between the art and science of aging. Two sides of the same coin, of course, but touching different parts of our bodies, minds and emotions. Aging in place is great if you love the place. For some, however, getting elder (and wiser) can provide just the opportunity to rethink how you want to live for the next 5, 10 or 20 years of your life, I am coming to see the joy in this being older space, after having fought it for years! i am, I think, not all that uncommon in this regard.

    Keep writing, Duo. It always helps me to get into the art of feeling and the science of being, or maybe the reverse. Love ya. Janice G 10.15.15

  2. annette ross permalink
    January 24, 2016 10:15 am

    stayed up last night reading your essays. They’re interesting insightful funny and deeply moving. Thank you so much for writing. Annette


  1. Welcome to Saved by Design | Saved By Design
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