Durable Growth

Urbanism and senior life: Defining the question

Typical Venetian scene

Typical Venetian scene

In the early days of this blog, when I was still young and naïve, I described three seminal steps in my progress from being someone who accepted drivable suburbia as eternal to someone who would call himself an urbanist.

One of those steps was an observation made during a 2007 trip to Venice.  Below, I quote my younger and more naïve self.

“One evening, I dined in a trattoria on the Piazza San Toma.  (Best gnocchi I’ve ever had.)  As I ate, an elderly gentleman entered.  He was perhaps in his late 70s, tall and fit.  His clothes showed wear, but were in good repair and nicely pressed.   He carried a sparklingly clean pottery bowl.

“My Italian was limited, but I could discern that he wanted a double order of a favorite pasta to take it back to his apartment to share with his wife, who was physically unable to come to the trattoria.   The proprietor of the trattoria knew the gentleman and greeted him with warmth and enthusiasm.   Several friends who were dining in a rear room were advised of his presence.  They came forward to sit with him as he awaited his order.

“The conversation, although far beyond my ability to understand, was voluble and good-natured.  Even the son of the proprietor, who clearly wanted to be elsewhere on the warm spring evening, talked familiarly with the gentleman and smiled for the first time all evening.”

In the three years since I wrote those words, I’ve had many opportunities to observe the American approach to eldercare.  Between my wife and me, we’ve either coordinated or observed as numerous parents, uncles, and aunts made the transition from family homes to senior care facilities.  Not all made the transition directly.  Some spent time in other settings, such as RVs or mountain cabins, enjoying the early years of their retirements.  But all have concluded their journeys in senior care facilities, whether assisted or independent living.

Remarkably, all but one have been pleased by the transition.  And the ones who resisted the move with tenacity now regret their obstinacy.  (The one hold-out continues to buck medical advice and demands to return to his former home.  But every time he gets there, he suffers a relapse and is hauled back to the hospital.  There can be bull-headed geriatrics, especially at the age of 89.)

But as content as my various relatives and in-laws may be in their new settings, I still think back to the Venetian gentleman.  I suspect that none of the Americans seniors I know experience moments as exhilarating as the trattoria reunion I witnessed.

However, I’ve also come to wonder about the remainder of the Venetian gentleman’s daily life.  Living with an invalid wife on a minor Venetian plaza, how does he spend his winter days?  Sitting at a window watching the rain lash the empty pavement?  Compared to that life, bingo in the recreation room of a senior living facility may look attractive.

I suspect that there is a way to combine the comfort and security of the American approach to eldercare with the backslapping moments of greeting the Venetian friends with whom one has lived a life.  The Venn diagram overlap may be small, but I’ll wager that it exists.  And I’m positive that the overlap lies within the area of walkable urbanism.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll explore different aspects of how urbanism can make better lives for senior citizens, from transit to housing options to socialization to walkability.  And I’ll be eager for the input of others.  If we work together, perhaps we can have solutions in place by the time I need them.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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