A Pattern Language, a seminal work on architecture and urban planning by Christopher Alexander, Murray Silverstein, and Sara Ishikawa, lists as pattern #40, “Old People Everywhere.” In many places, that’s already the reality.

By 2050, one-quarter of Australia’s population will be 65 or older. Providing the housing types that seniors will need and want will likely be challenging. What type of seniors housing will they want?

Understanding that issue will require breaking down the cohort according to different needs. According to Deane Simpson, architect, professor, and urban studies expert, many newly retired people can be classified as the “young-old,” meaning they are retired but still in good health, newly free from the duties of work and family raising, and also free from medical problems. Simpson wrote about the “young-old” and housing options for seniors in his book, Young-Old: Urban Utopias of an Aging Society.  

Two common options include simply staying where you are, also known as “aging in place,” and retirement homes. In an interview in Metropolis magazine, Simpson emphasized the need to look at both with a critical eye.

Aging in place is an emerging orthodoxy that’s universally accepted and promoted,” he said. “Retirement communities—from the perspective of planners or architects—are seen as a negative situation.”

Aging in place sounds like the more preferable option, but different places are differently suited for it. According to Simpson, “Suburbia is more challenging to aging in place, particularly in the last years of life when one has lost the ability to drive or the confidence to do it anymore.”

In contrast, urban areas can make independent living much more feasible, with easy access to daily necessities such as health care and a variety of transportation, in addition to walkable neighbourhoods.

Writing for Mother Nature Network, writer Lloyd Alter recounted how his mother-in-law did fine at her suburban home until she could no longer drive, at which point she required frequent help that was not easy to access. He then noted the advantages that more walkable neighbourhoods offered.

“It’s different in older communities built around streetcar and train lines so that people could go shopping or get to work without cars,” Alter wrote. “The local High Street or Main Street supported a range of services and retailers so that you could get whatever you needed, albeit in smaller sizes and higher prices than the big box store in the suburbs.”

Retirement communities, though frequently maligned for their supposed impersonal, institutional character, may offer some of the same advantages, enabling people to live more or less independently and having access the help they need.

“I’m deeply critical of these environments but it’s also important to acknowledge the emancipatory aspect of these urban settings,” Simpson said.

In some cases, a sort of hybrid has developed as people have stayed in their neighbourhoods and aged in place over the decades, creating a sort of de facto retirement community.

“In Denmark, postwar suburbs are occupied by families that moved into them in the very beginning, and many of those people have aged there,” Simpson noted. “Now those areas are completely dominated by 70-year-olds.”

Another option for seniors is cohousing. Originally developed in Denmark, cohousing is made up of single-family homes, either attached or freestanding, in a community development with public spaces such as a common house, gardens, and playgrounds. The design is meant to preserve privacy while encouraging social interaction. Most cohousing developments to date have been designed for middle-aged and younger people, but several developments have been built in the last few years specifically for seniors. Called elder cohousing or senior cohousing, these developments are not designed to provide care, as in an assisted living facility, but to enable seniors to age in place, integrated with their communities.

That idea supports the “Old People Everywhere” pattern from A Pattern Language. The title reflects the authors’ contention that seniors ought to be integrated into their communities, rather than isolated in large retirement communities. Requirements for that pattern are:

  1. “It must allow them to stay in the neighbourhood they know best—hence some old people in every neighbourhood.
  2. It must allow old people to be together, yet in groups small enough not to isolate them from the younger people in the neighbourhood.
  3. It must allow those old people who are independent to live independently, without losing the benefits of community.
  4. It must allow those who need nursing care or prepared meals, to get it, without having to go to nursing homes far from the neighbourhood.

All these requirements can be solved together, very simply, if every neighbourhood contains a small pocket of old people, not concentrated all in one place, but fuzzy at the edges, like a swarm of bees.”