A Place to Live When We Are Old*

Hospital, home, hospital, home. For a couple of years, my grandfather went back and forth between these two places.

Except this one time.

The doctors told him that he could leave the hospital. But home wasn’t possible; my grandmother couldn’t provide the care my grandfather needed. So he checked into a seniors’ home. Here he would recover and gain strength in his legs, which would allow him to return home in no time. So the story went.

My mum and I visited him in Shawinigan-Sud (a small town in one of Canada’s regions with the highest proportion of seniors). Driving down the town’s main drag, we turned a couple of corners and pulled into the seniors’ centre’s parking lot. I could see remnants of a single home in the pastiche of extensions. The building’s exterior green paint provided some continuity.

The home was composed of long-term residents and a couple of “recoverers,” seniors who rented rooms by the month and hoped to recover from operations and bouts of illness and eventually leave the “home” for, well, home. My grandfather was a recoverer.

The building’s one elevator was narrow and the hallway, even narrower. Only one wheelchair or walker could fit in either. People waited to enter, to pass. The common areas, furnished with rocking chairs and tables, sat at the end of each floor’s long hallway. These areas looked like the end-of-hallway solariums characteristic of Québécois Catholic residential architecture.

We found Grandpa sitting in his minuscule room. Beside the single bed was a dresser, which I recognized from my childhood bedroom: a white plywood structure adorned with brass handles, each decorated with pink flowers. I had the wide, low version; Grandpa, the narrow, tall one. Next to the dresser, layers of pillows sat on a swivel chair. The stack was Grandpa’s effort to make the chair remotely usable and comfortable for someone with reduced arm strength. Finally, the bathroom: its smallness couldn’t accommodate a walker, and, thus, was impractical for our recoverer.

We chatted and caught up the way people do when a person they love is sick. Feet walk softly in circles; eyes swell with uncertainty and love; words come out optimistically. Grandpa is the kind of person that resists efforts to care for him, to fuss over him. He had never asked for much. This room was not much. He knew it; we knew it. But we talked about other things.

It was dinner time. A young nurse, or a nurse’s aide or a customer service representative for all I knew (when all the staff wear scrubs in a medicalized place, it’s next to impossible to figure out who is what), rolled my grandfather on the uneven floor to the basement dining room. The scrubbed woman displayed cheer. She exclaimed, “How lucky are you to be pushed to the dining room, to be treated with such attention!”

Blasphemy, I thought.

In the dining room, a number identified each table, like it’s done in casual restaurants that serve food in paper-lined, usually plastic baskets. Each resident had a number and a table mate. Same table, same mate, every day.

Grandpa’s table mate Roger was a former butcher. Born, butchered, and now growing old in Shawinigan-Sud. He loved the town’s 5ième avenue. My grandfather nodded and redirected the conversation for as long as he could.

Grandpa’s mood grew darker, and his hope flattened with every passing week. He stayed at the centre for about two months. After that, he went back to the hospital. He never did return home.

§ § § § §

A year ago, my grandpa and grandma moved into a two-bedroom apartment in a seniors’ residence. It has wide hallways, huge windows, several elevators, and a flat topography. Grandpa and Grandma eat at home or in the dining room; they sit where they want, with whom they want, when they want (they are among the few residents who table surf). In the residence, they practise yoga, attend computer classes, play pool, and swim. Grandpa rides his scooter down the street to the seniors’ pool hall where he’s become a regular once again; once back home, he parks in the reserved scooter parking. Grandma banks and has her hair set on the main floor. A nurse, local clothing shops, choirs, and artists visit regularly. Mondays are movie nights.

Critics of these residences, including some family and friends, argue that they reduce a senior’s or older adult’s mobility and connectivity to the city or town (la cité). For these critics, mobility means movement over relatively long distances. And if mobility is so important to the critics, it’s because they equate it with living and social integration.

But in the immediate environment of a residence that socializes its users (rather than medicalizes them), pedestrian movement, not immobility, is the norm. My grandparents have not had this many spaces and places to explore and frequent in a while.

Last year, I worked for a seniors’ community centre in downtown Montreal. This is what the centre’s members taught me:

  • To grow older and old is to grow into new ways of experiencing and being in space.
  • Seniors need and want movement and connection.

My grandparents’ residence gets this. It has built an infrastructure of everyday life in and around the residence. In this way, it echoes the spirit of Le Corbusier’s Cité radieuse, whose daycare, restaurant, hotel, art studio, bookstore, and other amenities make the apartment building a centre of everyday life.

Residences designed for proximity to services and access to leisure are not a universal solution. But these residences are relevant and desirable because they design places (and practise space) for ageing bodies, interests, and spirits.

“Residential Hotels for Retired Persons of Limited Means Dot the South Beach Area. The Front Porch Is a Favorite Gathering Place.” Photo and text by Filp Schulke (1973).

“Inexpensive Retirement Hotels Are a Hallmark of the South Beach Area. A Favored Place Is the Front Porch, Where Residents Sit and Chat Or Watch the Activities on the Beach.” Photo and text by Filp Schulke (1973).

“Tricycle Club of the Century Village Retirement Community Meets Each Morning.” Photo  and text by Filp Schulke (1973).

“Tricycle Club of the Century Village Retirement Community Meets Each Morning.”
Photo and text by Filp Schulke (1973).

“The South Beach Area of Miami Beach Attracts Large Numbers of People of Retirement Age. Various Small Businesses Cater to this Clientele.” Photo and text by Filp Schulke (1973).

“Park Benches of the South Beach Area of Miami Beach Are Favorite Meeting Places for Members of the Area’s Large Retirement Community.” Photo and text by Filp Schulke (1973).

“Lives of the Many Elderly Persons Who Have Chosen South Beach for Their Retirement Years Revolve Around the Beach. It Is the Longest Stretch of Public Beach in the Area.” Photo and text by Filp Schulke (1973).

“Playing ‘Mah-Jong’ at the Clubhouse of the Century Village Retirement Community.”
Photo and text by Filp Schulke (1973).

“Residents of the Century Village Retirement Community Gather Around Pool for Daily Exercise Session.” Photo and text by Filp Schulke (1973).

“Residents Take Part in Organized Daily Exercises in One of the Public Pools at Century Village Retirement Community.” Photo and text by Filp Schulke (1973).

“Residents of the Century Village Retirement Community Take Part in Organized Daily Exercises.”
Photo and text by Filp Schulke (1973).

How can we adjust our conceptions of ageing + city + space for our grandparents and parents? For ourselves? Here are some creative and practical ideas on living and ageing:

  • Operating at the intersection of the careful and careless, the Ageing Facilities is an alternative research centre. Its missions is to make space for “the older age.” A past project encouraged a dance class of 60+ adults to move into a less comfortable time and space (from an indoor morning class to an outdoor evening class) and thus, discover the pleasure of risk taking in older age.
  • Sophie Handler, an urbanist by training and member of Ageing Facilities, wrote a semifictional account of how elderly can reclaim space they are usually excluded from.
  • In French and Spanish cities, students and seniors are finding each other in the form of a new relationship: the roommate. This relationship is conceived as an exchange whereby the student takes on household responsibilities and a companionship role in return for reasonable rent and friendship. This might work well in North America, where intergenerational living between related adults and older adults isn’t as popular as it once was or currently is elsewhere.
  • My other grandma lives in a centre for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. The centre’s loop shape helps minimize residents’ disorientation in space. A hospital in Dusseldorf noticed that disoriented patients gravitated to bus stops once they realized they were lost. So it built a fictitious one on its lawn.
  • Back to leisure and parks. A Toronto-area urbanist outlines how parks can become age-sensitive and senior-inclusive by adding age-specific leisure and game infrastructures. Check out his table of age-specific needs, interests, and trends.

I’d love to hear how you or your parents and grandparents are growing old and older in space. What designs or practices enable movement and encourage connection? What places strike you as age-specific or age-sensitive? How and why?

* Taken from the title of a recent art exhibit in London.

** The photos were taken by Filp Schulke in Florida in the spring and summer of 1973. They are part of the series “DOCUMERICA: The [U.S.] Environmental Protection Agency’s Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern.”

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4 thoughts on “A Place to Live When We Are Old*

    • I do too! My grandparents and great-grandparents spent winters in Florida, and I remember looking through their photo albums and seeing active and tanned seniors, similar to those in Schulke’s photos. I remember thinking Florida was exotic!

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