Why living in a vital neighborhood is the best health plan

The key is to thinking of your home as a life partner and keep reinvigorating the relationship

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The key is to look at your home as life partner and keep invigorating the relationship

It is evening, I have my doors open and the sounds of my neighborhood waft through the air. I hear my neighbors across the street talking with friends from their little porch atop their one car garage which has become their solution to socialize during the pandemic. Earlier in the day, I met my other neighbors’ three-week-old grandbaby as they were walking by, and I greeted three other neighbors on our daily safe-distance early evening walks. This coming Saturday the professional band of another neighbor will give a street concert. 

These casual connections have kept me going over the seemingly endless last few months–the months of physical separation. Jane Jacobs, in her influential 1961 book The Death and Life of  Great American Cities, argued that the most valuable quality of a city are these opportunities for casual encounters and connections. They build trust and resilience for difficult  times. Research suggests that social isolation is a growing health risk among older adults with serious implications for diseases such as dementia, and that a more important mitigator than close friendships are these everyday, informal social contacts in our communities, from shop owners who recognize you to the neighbors from whom you’d ask to borrow an egg. 

What enables us to stay in our communities longterm is the design and functionality of our homes. I am an architect and founded a learning community on aging, ‘At Home With Growing Older.’ My philosophy is that if one sees one’s home as a partner, no matter what this home is — a room or a house or a neighborhood — this partner can grow with us. We can adapt it to our needs to fit  changing life circumstances. Here are some suggestions for how to approach this partnership. 

First of all, whatever you do, think about your home as part of the larger community. That means that you want people of different abilities and ages to visit your home or even also share it with you. Intergenerational households are growing, not just because young adults are moving back home because of the pandemic. Putting up a rail on your stair can make a difference for somebody being able to visit or not. 

Second, when you do actual construction work on your home, think long term. It is worth the extra investment to have a curbless shower and reinforce the wall for installation of a safety bar. Think about the views you have from the windows in  your house and how to enhance them (views connect us to the world beyond and are one of the most beloved qualities of home mentioned by participants in our Aging 360 workshops). Think through how you could live in your home with a housemate and how maybe an additional sliding door or separate entry could provide privacy. 

Third, many changes are inexpensive, you can do them yourself or with the help of a handyperson. You don’t need the latest stove or faucet  to cook healthy meals. You might take off your upper cabinets all together or replace them with some open shelves so you see what you need daily and get motivated to cook. You might put drawers into your lower cabinets so you do not have to crawl into the outer reaches and therefore rather avoid this journey. Maybe you also start to cherish your old bread board and pull up a stool to chop instead of standing when you’re tired. 

Fourth, I believe that playfulness and delight need to be part of most everything we do, especially if it has something to do with getting older and the fears connected to it. In general it is much more fun to plan ahead than act in crisis mode. If you decide to put up a handrail, pay attention to the material and what you like to touch – maybe you put up a piece of driftwood you found instead of a  rail from the hardware store or maybe you just paint the rail in a color that brings you joy. What about thinking about all the gadgets that have been designed for extreme sports such as climbing? Putting up a colorful climbing grip in your shower is a good place to start. 

Lastly, doing 20, 30, 50 percent is better than nothing. Most of us do not live on one floor or have level entryways. Uncertainties remain for all of us as we grow older but we can all coax our homes into being better partners. 

My big move, years ago, was to turn my front yard into a ‘Plaza’. I leveled the area around our old palm tree and put some gravel down, then came a dining table and a bench. One of my neighbors ‘booked’ it for his daughter’s graduation dinner because it was level and accessible for his mom. During Covid, this is where we have planned and impromptu outdoor dinners with disbursed seating. 

My next moves are very small – a handy neighbor is coming this week to fix my handshower. He is also going to take down my upper kitchen cabinets and build an old fashioned California Cooler (a cabinet with a screened vent to the outside) so I can keep veggies outside the fridge. Lastly he will put a second handrail on my front stairs. 

I love my neighborhood. And a relationship takes work, after all. 

Susanne Stadler is an Architect and co-founder of the nonprofit organization At Home With Growing Older. She is passionate about designing environments for people of all ages and abilities. She is an Encore public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

Neighbors celebrating the graduation of their daughter in my ‘Plaza’
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