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Are We Bubble Wrapping Our Seniors?


Too Safe For Our Own Good

We’ve all heard this bubble wrapping analogy before in the context of overprotective parenting.  In an article in Psychology Today from 2013 titled, “A Nation of Wimps”, the author points out that today’s parents are more focused on academic achievement than child development.  The tendency of parents to protect kids from falls, failure, and opportunities to learn from their own mistakes has had tragic implications.  College campuses are filled with an entire generation of psychologically fragile young adults who are ill equipped to solve problems or deal with stresses that are simply part of “growing up”.

This same safety-conscious parental demographic (my age group) is also largely responsible for the decisions regarding the care and housing of our parents.  We demand safety, freedom to move without barriers, and assurance that our loved ones will not choke, fall, get sick, get tired, get fat, get lazy, get confused… or get old. As we strip away problem solving  and decision making opportunities, and remove challenges and obstacles to quell the risk of failure, we inadvertently accelerate dependence, isolation, depression, and physical decline. Although no one would argue that most older adults have better access to care and decent housing than they did 30 years ago, there is a chance that our best intentions may lead to a similar “bubble-wrapped” phenomenon that weakens older adults both mentally and physically.

The senior living industry is guided by the preferences of aging baby boomers and their sandwich-generation offspring, and the two groups can be quite at odds about what the most desirable living conditions are.

U.S. Census Bureau, 2012 American Community Survey PUMS as analyzed by the AARP Research Center.
“Aging in Place”: 87 percent of adults age 65+ want to stay in their current home and community as they age.

The Principles of Universal Design are considered the gold standard in the senior living realm.  Created by architects, engineers, product designers, researchers, and planners, the Principles of Universal Design provide a set of standards that make the environment and all things in it equally accessible and usable, to the extent possible, for everyone.   In an effort to reduce the impact of disability and chronic disease, while also providing a safe and accessible environment that promotes independence and longevity, senior living builders and planners have become quite proficient at recognizing barriers and eliminating obstacles.  But what is the trade off?

f87a0fe8d3b983ad332a1ec675a833b5The Downside of Comfort and Safety

As humans, we are designed to move on different directional planes in space.  Forward and backward, up and down, on and off, and in rotational patterns- and we are put through a variety of these movements in “normal” indoor and outdoor conditions.

We also perceive and respond to a variety of sensory stimuli that flood our brains with electrical impulses.  As a species designed to aggregate, procreate, cultivate, hunt, gather, and survive, most of us are well equipped to handle stimulating environments.  In fact, a lack of stimulation, socialization, and movement is generally what gets us into trouble (i.e. dementia, depression, obesity…).

On a normal day, we step up on curbs and steps, reach into the mailbox, switch from walking on concrete to grass and back again.  We negotiate cracks in sidewalks and watch for traffic.  We listen and process contextual cues such as chirping birds, approaching cars, pattering footsteps, closing doors, and the chatter of other people.  We use our hands to manipulate a variety of objects like keys, doorknobs, light switches, and anything we may be carrying.  We eat when we’re hungry.  We learn our own compensatory strategies for the bum knee and the aching back.  The point is, we integrate sensory information, process it, and churn out a movement response.  Good or bad, the results are at least of our own mental and physical processes.

Accessibility Design has been a godsend in many respects.  But with the benefit of improved access and design comes the minimization and automation of the human effort.  I think this is a tradeoff worth considering as the dichotomy is putting what a senior wants at odds with what a senior needs.

Over the last 30 years, the senior living industry has made tremendous gains in providing improved living conditions for seniors.  Trends have shifted from poorhouse aggregate living to institutional care that included “safety measures” like physical and pharmaceutical restraints.  Thankfully there has been a more recent shift toward concepts like home-like settings, fitness and wellness, and aging-in-place.

I propose yet another shift in the senior living environment- one in which there is opportunity for physical and cognitive challenges.  Intentional placement of stairs next to ramps, placement of outdoor fitness equipment that includes balance and rotational features, interactive cognitive activities that require a physical output… how about an obstacle course on the way to the dining room?  Or navigational game using color coded clues and contextual hints?  A scavenger hunt?

What I am suggesting is a reverse approach to accessibility.  Rather than making things simpler, why not be intentional about making it challenging?  Or competitive?  Or fun?

The result might mean more agile, more cognizant, more stimulated older adults.

Our natural human habitats are full of challenging requirements.  Dummying it down, well, dummies us down.



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