AAF’s Design for Aging Forum

On February 17, 2012, in Washington, D.C., the American Architectural Foundation convened a forum of national leaders in design for aging. The video and report that follow provide an introduction to AAF’s ongoing work in this field. 

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A Report from the AAF Design for Aging Forum

The first of the United States’ 79 million Baby Boomers turned 65 in 2011, signaling a key demographic shift that will redefine American culture and society for at least the next century. It will also profoundly affect the way we design our neighborhoods and cities.

In 2010 according to the US Census Bureau, 40.3 million Americans (roughly 13 percent of the total US population) were aged 65 or older. By 2050, that group will more than double in size to 88.5 million and will include one in five Americans. Over that same period, the number of Americans aged 85 or older is projected to rise from 5.1 million to a whopping 21 million, an increase of 400 percent.

This aging of the US population will likely level off around 2030, but demographers don’t foresee a reversal anytime soon. Life expectancies are up thanks to advances in health and healthcare, so much so that more than one third of babies born today in developed countries could live to see 100. In addition, according to the Pew Research Center, the Millennial generation, born from 1980 to 1998, is as large as (if not larger than) the Baby Boom generation.

What does all this mean? Simply put, more people are living longer, and the quality of life in America across the generations will hinge on our ability to adapt to our new reality. Central to our success will be our capacity to design cities that support and inspire new and creative paths to lifelong fulfillment. Toward that end, on February 17, 2012, in Washington, DC, the American Architectural Foundation convened a national forum of experts and innovators working at the intersection of aging and design.

The goals of the AAF Design for Aging Forum were exploratory: to better understand the existing landscape and the work being done by individuals and organizations across the United States; to identify and clarify challenges and opportunities faced by cities; and to explore possible roles for AAF in helping to advance innovations in design for aging.

Attendees and other notable contributors to the conversation included:

What follows is an introduction to some of the most insightful and inspiring moments in that conversation.


According to Professor Dennis Domer, who is doing pioneering research on design for aging at the University of Kansas, Baby Boomers are determined to buck traditional models for aging and retirement: “They don’t want what their parents want, and more than anything they are searching for a meaningful life as they age.” Among those outmoded models are the age-segregated retirement communities favored by their parents, not to mention the more institutional assisted living facilities and nursing homes that continue to be a staple of the elder-care industry.

Bolstering this aversion to the status quo is the experience of Boomers who are currently providing care for their aging parents, with about 70 percent of Boomers having at least one living parent. In their role as family member and/or caregiver, Boomers have seen the opportunities available to their aging parents and are rejecting this framework.

What do Boomers want instead? At the AAF Forum, Domer offered a series of guiding principles culled from his research:

  • To be physically active and live in walkable communities;
  • To give back to and engage in their communities;
  • To be close to their children and friends and to live in an intergenerational setting;
  • To pursue continuing education, culture, and sports;
  • To have good transportation options that help to preserve their independence;
  • To live near medical services;
  • To live in a safe environment;
  • To have affordable options;
  • To have meaningful lives and “encore” careers;
  • To benefit from smart technologies;
  • To enjoy clean, precise, easy living;
  • To be supported by universal design features.

For many, the ideal is to age in place, continuing their lives right where they are, in the communities that have become an essential part of who they are (and in many ways, they are essential parts of those communities as well).

Boomers also have higher expectations than previous generations in the marketplace. According to Kathy Anderson of Goodwin House, a non-profit organization that just completed development of $150 million in continuing care retirement communities in the DC metro area, “[Boomers] have a strong consumer orientation and will demand choice, variety, flexibility, and active engagement as they age and want to live as independently as possible for as long as they can.”

Still, a mainstream body of alternative ideas and models for life after 65 has yet to be produced. According to Domer, what is lacking more than anything is “imagination” about the possibilities for aging and retirement.

To help fuel their imagination, a vocabulary that promotes new and big thinking is required. Words and phrases like “aging,” “old,” “elderly,” “senior citizen,” “retirement,” and “golden years”  reinforce outmoded concepts shunned by Boomers and can stand in the way of innovation. Not only will this new vocabulary aid in the creative process, but it will also be essential to the ability of innovators to communicate their ideas clearly and compellingly to both policy makers and the public.

Coupled with the desires and aspirations of the Boomers are some hard financial realities that are further ushering the traditional modes of aging and retirement into obsolescence. According to Ed Steinfeld, AIA, executive director of the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access at the University of Buffalo, several of the largest corporations that develop planned communities for seniors have gone bankrupt because the economic model that supported them simply doesn’t work anymore. In the past, people were able to sell their homes, which had appreciated in value, to move into those communities, but the Great Recession of recent years has depressed the market, eliminating this option.

The collapse of the housing market coupled with the resultant financial crisis wreaked havoc on the retirement plans of millions of Boomers. According to a December 2009 report by the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging, between September 2007 and May 2009, retirement account balances went down a combined $2.7 trillion (31 percent).

In May of 2010, MetLife conducted a national survey of Boomers, and 52 percent of respondents reported being “behind in the progress of their retirement savings.” Moreover, 25 percent said they were “significantly behind where they hoped to be,” and seven percent had not even started to save for retirement.

Corroborating these findings is a report released by the Insured Retirement Institute in August 2010. According to that report, the general attitude of Boomers toward their retirement finances is “pessimistic,” with 60 percent projecting that they will outlive their retirement savings.

In addition, government funding streams are typically aimed at simply meeting basic needs. Brad Calvert from the Denver Regional Council on Government noted that his organization had done a recent and extensive survey of Boomers and that the number one issue for 70 percent of those surveyed was to have more opportunities for civic engagement. The problem: “there is little funding for that support versus meals on wheels, health, etc.”

The challenge thus will be how to create a range of design options that meet Boomers’ needs while taking into account their desires, personal finances, and the potential for support from other funding streams.


Government support must also be pursued on zoning boards, which can either facilitate or block change. According to John Haaga of the National Institute on Aging, zoning boards have consistently demonstrated their ability to prevent neighborhoods from becoming more walkable and denser, both qualities that would benefit aging Boomers. He argued, for example, that one of the biggest obstacles to creating more livable communities is getting around current minimum lot-size requirements. For Brad Calvert, one of the central problems is that current codes make it very hard to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs), also known as granny flats.

Zoning flexibility is also essential to address the re-imagination and reorganization of auto-centric communities. The need for Boomers to drive everywhere will ultimately have a significant impact on the length of time that they are able to age in place, unless alternative models are successfully created. Some of the alternatives being explored are shared housing arrangements; resident-organized collaboratives that assist individuals with the day-to-day challenges of aging in place; and the full integration of continuing care retirement communities into their larger communities. For these efforts to work, an accommodating zoning code that allows for new and evolving building types and extensive alternative transportation options will be essential.


Jane Lynott from AARP’s Public Policy Institute also noted the vital importance of establishing a new approach to universal design. Consider how best practices in sustainability have become codified over the past decade, making them a fundamental aspect of design practice. A similar codification is necessary for best practices in universal design.

And that process has begun to an extent. Michael Morris from the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University made a presentation at the AAF Forum about the Global Universal Design Commission. As he noted, universal design is not exclusively about aging or disability but is rather an effort to create design standards that help people of all ages.

The Global Universal Design Commission is seeking to create a set of voluntary standards to complement existing guidelines and has recognized three existing buildings, including Quito International Airport in Ecuador, that have already used these standards. Morris made the case that any aging discussion must incorporate thinking on universal design because of the direct interface between age and disability. Speaking to the issue of a new vocabulary, he argued that the “universal design” label is a way to overcome the negative connotations associated with “disabilities.”

Retooling the Americans with Disabilities Act
Scott Ball, senior project manager at the design firm Duany Plater-Zyberk, asserts that the architectural community has developed a great body of knowledge about how to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) down to a “quarter of an inch.” Currently, 19 percent of all Americans have a disability, but as Boomers age this number will surely increase.

Ball believes that the ADA is “low-hanging fruit” that can be leveraged to create new standards for universal design. What is needed is to move thinking about the ADA from a “civil rights” perspective, associated with individual rights, to a broader “consumer protection” framework. The Global Universal Design Commission has taken a first step in this direction by creating design process standards to ensure that universal design is given “appropriate attention” at the community planning phase.


At every turn in the conversation, the need to improve communications assets—both verbal and visual—came to the forefront. According to Jana Lynott of AARP, “It’s about the importance of social engagement and communication through the built environment; and how do you create that? The rugged individualism of the US is a hurdle.” She suggested that design professionals can show how to bridge that obstacle in interesting, “cool,” acceptable ways. In the words of Kathy Sykes, “Changing the language helps paint a picture for what could be.”

Partnerships are also essential. Laura Keyes and her colleagues at the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) have been developing lifelong communities and probably have the most extensive program now underway in the nation. The process began for ARC in 2008 with a nine-day workshop involving 1500 participants—a partnership program of ARC, the US Environmental Protection Agency, AARP, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In attendance were elected officials and other regional and local leaders from six communities representing both urban and suburban settings. The scale of focus ranged from regional planning to the design of individual homes. Design professionals from Duany Plater-Zyberk led each team through the intensive workshop with the goal of producing conceptual plans.

For its efforts, ARC has developed an extensive network of partners ranging from developers, to organizations focused on aging, to local governments, as well as the Atlanta Housing Authority. Knoll, the developer of Columbia Residential, for example, recognizes that people need increasing support as they age and wants to learn how to accommodate those requirements. In addition, the Atlanta Housing Authority has appropriated some principles from the workshop for use in high-rise buildings to activate courtyards.


Key to this type of collaboration are innovative, inspirational, and accessible ideas, goals, words, and images. Mattias Hollwich of HWKN argued strongly at the AAF Forum for creating a fresh arsenal of communications assets. He maintained—and others whole-heartedly agreed—that new online platforms, compelling images, and an alternative vocabulary (consider “empowerment communities” as an alternative to “retirement communities”) could help to create “a dream, a goal, a vision.”

Throughout the Forum, participants echoed the idea that members of the design community are uniquely skilled to lead this innovation in ideas and communications because they have the ability to create stories in words and images that society can relate to. And those stories are essential. As John Haaga of the National Institute on Aging explained, “new images are far more relatable than the policies and numbers that are discussed.”


The AAF Design for Aging Forum suggested a number of compelling directions for the American Architectural Foundation’s continued leadership and engagement around this vital issue. We are evaluating those opportunities for helping local leaders prepare their cities for the coming demographic transformation. In close collaboration with our partners, we are developing a plan of action, which we will issue in the near future here on our website.

In the meantime, while we learned much from the Forum, we know that much remains to be learned. We invite you to join us in this process of discovery, understanding, and visioning. Over the coming weeks on our website, we will be profiling innovators, ideas, and projects that are revolutionizing how communities are designed in response to the aging American population. For more information and to get involved, explore the Design for Aging content on our website, and follow us on Twitter @AAFdesign.

Featured image courtesy of HWKN.

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Posted in: Design for Aging, Economic Development, Health + Wellness, Print, Sustainability
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