Keeping Our Elders Close…

After my grandfather died, to everyone’s surprise, my grandmother happily moved into an old folks’ home five minutes’ drive from the house she’d lived in for half a century. She was a sociable creature who adored arts and crafts, and group activities in general, and leaving her home was nothing compared to her still active sense of FOMO.

At the home, she liked sitting in the little shared living room that faced towards the street, resting her feet on her trusty pouffe cushion, watching the pukeko staggering drunkenly around the marshes, and chatting to a glamorous Englishwoman who was writing her memoirs.

But I never enjoyed visiting her there. The staff were pleasant enough, but the place smelled of boiled cabbage. Gran’s room, though stuffed with her trinkets (she was a bit of a hoarder), was basically a hospital room; not big enough for a cat to be swung in.

And Gran was certainly not typical in her enthusiasm for nursing home life. A US study in 2007 “Aging in Place in America”, commissioned by Clarity and the EAR Foundation, showed…

“Older adults feared moving into a nursing home and losing their independence more than they feared death.”

The vast majority of seniors (89%), the study showed, wanted to grow older without having to move out of their homes. Their children, meanwhile, feared their parents would be sad or even mistreated.


Back in New Zealand, we are constantly reminded in the media that the population is about to turn very grey. Not only is the Baby Boomer generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) reaching pension age but, according to the Productivity Commission, the wonders of medicine mean that 42 per cent of people who reached 65 in 2014 can expect to live to 90.

Accommodation choices for the elderly currently boil down to two: staying at home, possibly alone, or living in kaumatua care or retirement homes.

While staying put might be the preferred choice, it carries with it the threat of social isolation, loneliness and depression. On the other hand, moving out means giving up your neighbourhood, library and favourite café, and suddenly finding yourself in a strange parallel universe on the fringes of society, where only other old people exist.

Age Concern Auckland says the current generation of seniors is unlike any that has gone before it. The “purple Baby Boomers”, as it describes them, are “rebellious”, and determined to stay independent and in control. The generation who brought us free love and hippy communes do not dig the idea of solitary living, but retirement villages aren’t their thing either. They want to stay in touch with their communities and the younger generation. They want the power to choose when they want company or solitude. They also want to be useful, and resent our consumer culture’s tendency to cast aside those whose time is deemed to have expired.

intergenerational 4

“Intergenerational living” is a concept which has its roots in Europe, and which Age Concern would like to see more of in New Zealand.

Though we have long enjoyed the tradition of the granny flat as a means of keeping our elders close (and possibly to alleviate our mortgages), this idea involves groups of hitherto strangers of all ages cohabiting in apartments or terraced houses, which contain separate living spaces and plenty of communal areas.

The residents help each other out with driving, shopping, admin, childcare and illness, which stimulates both self-help and neighbourly assistance, and reduces pressure on care and nursing staff. The projects are funded via a combination of private resources, a loan or mortgage and sometimes a government subsidy. Half the residents pay rent. Half are privately owned.

The idea has taken off all over the world, and morphed into variations. West Auckland’s Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood mixes residents of various ages, ethnicities and economic circumstances. The Intergenerational Learning Center at Providence Mount St Vincent in Seattle houses 400 elderly people and a preschool. Five days a week, the children and residents come together in planned activities such as music, dancing, art and storytelling. Portland’s inspiring Bridge Meadows project brings together foster children with de facto grandparents.

The US is also the birthplace of the Green House Project, an effort to “de-institutionalise” elderly care by stepping as far as possible away from the traditionally sterile nursing home environment.  A Green House Project community (of which there are now over 100 in the US) consists of clusters of homes with six to 10 seniors, who have their own room and bathroom. Social activity and the great outdoors are encouraged, and residents are free from scheduling, ie, if they don’t want to be woken at 6am for no apparent reason, they can continue right on sleeping.

This approach is also referred to in Europe as ‘Nursing Nests’ and is different not only for residents but also for the staff. Instead of being designated narrowly defined jobs such as bathing, cooking or laundry, each home has two nursing assistants who perform all of these jobs, but for fewer residents. This means carers get to know their patients personally, thus allowing them more autonomy.

Best of all, visitors report wanting to spend more time there, unlike the cramped and cabbagey place where my Gran spent her last years. She is gone now, but on a recent drive past the home, I noted two things: the pukeko are still there, and some new upstart has taken over her window seat.

Intergenerational Dandenong

Five design tips for aged care

  1. Look for opportunities in existing urban environments so older people stay close to their support networks and familiar places, rather than get flung to the outer edges of the universe.
  1. Mix it up. Aged care can be incorporated into a variety of locations: dedicated floors within an apartment building; developments over shopping centres; co-locating with universities and schools; or a mix of apartments and houses within a larger development. This could be at a range of scales, involving two people or 200.
  1. Integrate the functions of the development into the wider world, so there is a walkable and barrier free connection with the community.
  1. Design housing to work for the residents, rather than just providing a service.
  1. What would you want? Right up to the end of our lives, we want to enjoy the same things we always have. And bear in mind that this generation of older people might just have higher expectations than the ones that have gone before it.


Article by Julie Hill

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3 Responses to “Keeping Our Elders Close…”

  1. Karen Smith Says:

    What a great article. Having worked in a number of retirement villages both here in NZ and in the UK I couldn’t agree more with Hills’s comments.

    While such villages may suit some, in my experience many residents reported their frustrations at being surrounded by other older people when they desperately wanted to see some young blood around the place, e.g. children playing.

    Furthermore, many retirement villages prohibit pets, especially dogs. For many, their four-legged friends are their closest friends. Why should we be forced to sacrifice friendships for housing/social care needs?

    Many older people report a need to feel useful and have a sense of purpose. Developing communities that allow for meaningful engagement and occupation have already proven to improve mental and physical well-being amongst older populations.

    I really hope Auckland city developers take note and build a city where absolutely everyone can live a life worth living.


  2. Gayle Souter-Brown Says:

    Julie Hill has described the research well. Auckland will be challenged to find places to keep our elders close so long as it is possible to build multi story developments in suburbia, with little regard for the health and well-being impacts of urban design.

    Vancouver has managed urban densification well with zoned high rise areas so sight lines, sunlight, wind tunnels and ground level access to vital active transport and nature connections are managed and maintained. Paris has managed its dense urban plan with generous light wells and usable balconies, and publicly accessible greenspace every 2 blocks. Auckland is wise to look to CABE and beyond for guidance. The new book Landscape and Urban Design for Health and Well-Being provides a useful reference also.


  3. Helen Robinson Says:

    Thanks Karen and Gayle for your comments – intergenerational design solutions really do need to factor in both social ties (with family, community, even pets), and health/wellbeing factors such as access to sunlight and access to public greenspaces and shops within easy walking distance. The ADM team are currently developing content for the Auckland Design Manual on Universal Design and Health, Activity and Wellbeing Design. It’s our aim that these hubs will also work to better support and improve intergenerational design outcomes in Auckland.


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