Home is a Verb: Designing around the Lifeworld of Elders

In the final days of his life, unable to dictate, and suffering from immense pain of throat cancer, U.S. Grant scribbled a few final thoughts…

“I do not sleep though I sometimes doze a little. If up I am talked to and in my efforts to answer cause pain. The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three.”

While from this quotation Thomas Sebeok organizes an entire treatise on the semiosis of perception and the construction of “objects” in the world, I find the quote evocative for its relevance to an understanding of the concept of home in the lifeworld of elders. In short, if home is in any way an object, its meaning only derives from use. Hence, as designers, we must pay constant attention to the dynamics of the elder lifeworld, which is a challenge to our stereotypical view of old age as a period of stasis and rest.

Consider this beautiful passage from Wendell Berry’s The Memory of Old Jack, its description of the old farmer Jack Beechum, and the identity between self and environment that is created by movement.

He had known no other place. From babyhood he had moved in the openings and foldings of the old farm as familiarly as he moved inside his clothes. Before he bought it he had farmed it for five years as the tenant of the other heirs. But after the full responsibility of it fell to him, he saw it with a new clarity. He had simply relied on it before. Now when he walked in his fields and pastures and woodlands he was tramping into his mind the shape of the land, his thought becoming indistinguishable from it, so that when he came to die, his intelligence would subside into it like his own spirit.

The Intimate Environment
Focusing on movement, rhythm, the path and not the destination provides a schema for us to imagine an architecture for aging (and certainly for childhood) organized around a set of concentric circles that breathe in and out, expanding and contracting over the course of the day, and the course of a life. The smallest circle is our intimate space—the immediate space of the body and the interior space of our domicile. Here, we are designing for a body that traces a familiar, sometimes comfortable routine, punctuated with enough risk to make life interesting without revealing our frailties to caregivers who can “tell on us.” Consider the daily lifeworld of Naomi, one of our Bloomington research participants:

Naomi explains that she challenges herself to do one thing each day. This may be going to teach Bible study, attending the basketball game of a young member of her church, or just reading. She has also extended the challenge to the minute details of her physical existence, such as consciously deciding not to use the ejector function on her chair or making the effort not to stoop when she walks, even though she has the impulse to look where she is putting her feet…(while) she makes getting around easier by removing throw rugs and placing furniture to provide intermittent resting places as she moves through the house, she also places her everyday china “just out of reach” to promote her own range of motion. Wisely, she puts the plastic items even higher, knowing she may drop an item from time to time.

The Proximate Environment
The proximate environment, which begins at the window, the porch, the mailbox, even the telephone, connects the elder to the social world, where the goal is not intimacy, but neighborliness. Neighborly relations exist mid-way between intimacy and strangeness—at the fulcrum of the public and private life. Friendly, but not intrusive, neighbors are often the object of one’s giving, and one may be the subject of others’ concern. Neighbors share pride in the neighborhood and belong to an identified commons. Some, but not all values are shared. One basic, shared value, however, is that neighbors help “keep up the neighborhood ”  so that it is an attractive place to live. Neighbors are not family, nor even necessarily close friends. Friendships may, however, emerge from the field of neighborly
relations. Neighbors are there when you need them, but one doesn’t want to lean on them continuously. Neighbors do not substitute for family or intimate friends but, nevertheless, are extremely important to one’s sense of security and belongingness in a community.

The Public Environment
The third circle, the public environment, has enormous significance in the lives of elders and we all suffer when we don’t see “old people everywhere” as Christopher Alexander would recommend. Regretfully, architects charged with designing single residential buildings, or even retirement “communities” are not empowered to make the leap to designing public environments that work for older people. Access is, of course, paramount, and I won’t presume to add to the wonderful work of designers such as Ed Steinfeld, represented in a recent AAF Guest Writer’s feature. More than access, however, our goal should be engagement, which is access with a purpose. Being in the world is much more than simple “consumer behavior.” Getting the stuff that feeds us, cleans us, comforts us, entertains us is, of course, important, but falls short of fulfilling our hunger for social interaction, for sociability. Consider a typical grocery shopping excursion for Milton, one of our Bloomington research participants:

Milton spends hours in the grocery store, stopping to greet children along the way who, when riding in the grocery cart, are at eye level with him from the electric cart in which he rides. He enjoys making faces at the children who try to mimic his facial tricks and expressions. He explains, “I feel babies are the closest friends I have. Everyone smiles back at me. It’s a heavenly thing.” He explains that he never used to have time to talk with people and clerks in the store when he was a young parent. He says, however, that “Now it’s part of my social life. Everybody knows me and I make myself known. Without relationships I’m a dead man.”

As designers, then, (and those like me who “pretend to want to be architects”, like George Costanza), we should design for all three circles of life, the intimate, the proximate, the public. But to carry on life in all three circles means they must be permeable. We need mediating elements to move in and out—we need the path. Unfortunately, our best intentions to design environments for elders often fail in this regard, as AAF Guest Writers Steinfeld and Scott Ball have noted. We design suburban enclaves that become “no exit” spaces for elders who give up driving. We box up elderhood through our persistent age-segregation practices in both the physical and the social environment. Take one simple example: on the east side of town, residents of a sizeable retirement living community must get in a car or van to visit the Kroger Store/Pharmacy and shopping center which could otherwise be accessed by a 200-yard  foot, tricycle, or golf cart path.

In Bloomington we have discovered an important new mediating structure with the potential to transform and “desegregate” our age relations. It’s a simple trail—a 14-foot asphalt path that once served the Monon railroad and runs directly through the heart of the community for 3.1 miles—connecting public housing on the north end of the downtown with a future massive park on the south end, site of the old switchyard. The trail was originally spoken of as a linear park. Recently, in the neighborhood of the trail, a structured walkabout with 20 adults with intellectual disabilities revealed the significance and potential value of the trail as a virtual lifeline to fresh food, pharmacy, the arts, education, sociality, and intergenerational interaction. Now, motorized chairs are beginning to share the trail with the bikers in Spandex. On Saturday mornings, entire families can be seen moving together as pedestrians on their way to the (fabulous) Farmer’s Market.

Bloomington Farmer’s Market Plaza, Sculpture by Dale Enochs. Courtesy of the author.

This revelation of the potential mediating role of the B-Line Trail has spurred discussion about the development of a sub-area plan for the trail (A Lifetime Community District) that would incentivize development of a broad range of affordable, accessible, and visitable housing options, increase access points to the trail for adjacent neighborhoods, and expand the number of senior households to a level that provides economies of scale for the creation of new businesses and supportive services. The planning process is supported through participation in a national program of the Grantmakers in Aging—Community AGEnda, funded by Pfizer Foundation.

Bloomington, Indiana B-Line Trail.  Courtesy of the author.

And back again…
In the end, we return to the starting point—home is a verb, not a noun. Home is created by going in and out of the circles of life that surround us. I have found no better definition of this premise than one provided by a poetry group of Adult Day Care participants with dementia:

I have several homes 
I know a home is a home when I can
Go there 
And go out again.
Home is where the dog goes 
When it gets too cold to roam
When winter’s coming on 
That’s when I want to go 

U.S. Grant quote from Sebeok, Thomas, 1986. I Think I am a Verb: More Contributions to the Doctrine of Signs. New York: Plenum.
Wendell Berry quote from The Memory of Old Jack, 1974. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.
Naomi and Milton observations and quotes from ethnographic fieldnotes, Evergreen Project, 1996-2006, Bloomington, IN.
Christopher Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein design principle is from A Pattern Language, 1977. Oxford.
For video of the Bloomington downtown walkabout by people with disabilities see YouTube at: Red Team and Blue Team.
Community AGEnda: Improving America for All Ages is an initiative of Grantmakers In Aging and is funded by the Pfizer Foundation. It seeks to enhance and accelerate age-friendly development work in communities across America.
Poem by participants of Bloomington Hospital Adult Day Care, circa 1999, Jody Curly, Director and poetry leader.

About the Author

Philip B. Stafford, Ph.D. at Crestmont. Courtesy of the author.

Anthropologist Philip B. Stafford, Ph.D., is the Director of the Center on Aging and Community, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, Indiana University in Bloomington. He has been researching, teaching, consulting, writing and aging in community himself for 40 years. Recent books include Elderburbia: Aging with a Sense of Place in America, 2009 (Praeger), and Gray Areas: Ethnographic Encounters with Nursing Home Culture, 2003 (SAR Press).

Featured image courtesy of the Salvation Army.

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Posted in: Center for Design & the City, Community Engagement, Design for Aging, Health + Wellness, Media Type, Print
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