© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Reflection: Good design can help people age well

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 11, 2013 - The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

Psalm 90, v. 10; Attributed to Moses

I am closing in on fly-away time, I guess, if the calculations of Moses are right. In the life of an oldster, my age, 68, peeks around the chronological corner to look at the biblical drop-dead age of 70. Although life expectancies have been extended in the 3,000 years or so since Moses made his proto-actuarial poetical observations, the additional years we actually are given are few. And the truth is, they are not necessarily any good and can be degrading and horrible.

The valley of the shadow of death mentioned in the 23rd Psalm is truly a longer distance to travel. It is a stage the late psychoanalyst Erik Erikson described as being on the one hand luminous with wisdom, or on the other shrouded with regret, filled with bitterness and brought down with despair. 

In its ever expanding range of interests and programs that transcend what we generally understand to be art, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts is dedicating resources to formidable series of salons dedicated to intense concentration on issues of concern to all of us in the region, and actually, all who dwell in the 21st century. The ambition is to plow intellectual ground, and to plant and to nourish ideas that offer possible solutions to the problems of an increasingly complicated and contentious world.

The series of salons now in progress began Sept. 24, and it includes four evenings of conversations. This series is part of a larger five-year initiative that has the commendable intention of stimulating action for significant change through social engagement. The discussions revolve around a very special pivot, which is “design” defined broadly, There is recognition that in the nucleus of design there exists the potential for discovering remedies for persistent and often apparently confounding problems.

The discussion Wednesday night was on the condition that obviously vexed Moses, the business of getting old.

Old people get it from all sides. They are idealized sometimes, butts of jokes at other times. Old people who may be beloved and well cared are in danger. While apparently doing OK, often they skate on an edge of the population best described as disposable. In our culture, when the elderly are physically well and mentally sharp, they are adorable. When that situation changes for the worse, all too often they become burdens, and we wish they would shape up or go away. And all too often, before they are ready, if they or we can afford it, we actually do send them away.

How can design help? First we need to discard definitions of aging as deserving of a one-way ticket to some sort of institution, be it fancy or squalid. Then, to the point of the larger Pulitzer series, as consumers or planners or social engineers or journalists, we must cease regarding design as prettification -- an activity that arrives at the end of a process of creation and makes an object pretty. That is a worn out definition identified as wrong headed by Washington University design professor Ken Botnick, organizer of the Pulitzer’s salon program. In a way, it is parallel to radical positions taken by the brilliant late 19th-early 20th century architect and visionary Adolf Loos. He equated excessive ornament with crime.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong, and certainly not criminal, with the creation of objects of great beauty and enduring aesthetic value. Beauty is a product of good design -- but not its ultimate virtue. Design in the Pulitzer salon universe as I understand it is not Barcelona chairs but a complex, research-based, data-informed system that seeks to organize (or to reorganize) the world rationally and functionally and beneficently for everyone -- old people, young people and people in the chronological middle.

But the purpose of design on this level is not to create sensuous goods for the marketplace or for museums but to establish physically and emotionally accommodating environments and objects of utility that are additive and bring to us a special grace, grace that offers practices and tools that help to solve or to retard corrosive problems.

These ideas and orders are tall indeed. Selling them to the folks with the money to implement them is hard, even all to frequently Sisyphean in nature. On the part of designers, hubris, arrogance, value engineering, whims of fashion, ostentation and grandiosity and other diminishing factors divert design off its noble course and into the realm of elitist irrelevance. However, try we must. Design, in its most noble manifestations, raises the boat for everyone. It not only feels good, in some ineffable way it IS good.

Designers inevitably disagree about the constitution of “good” design, and where goodness may lie. But by avoiding slicing all that subjective baloney, and by shifting the definition away from pretty and precious to prescient and practical, and by moving design out of the quotidian and onto a higher, or at least different plane for two hours, salon participants had the opportunity and perhaps luxury of brainstorming and discussing vigorously the problems of the aged. The evening’s conversations suggested ways design could make challenged and difficult lives more livable and even more fun.

The specially selected group consisted of about 20 serious-minded, conscientious men and women with careers in social work, architecture, the arts, affordable housing and related matters,

Once the discussion began rolling, out came ideas about programs and products and practices and accumulate wisdom aimed at improving current threadbare conditions affecting the elderly, those we will describe as being over age 65. Because of the enormous expense associated with assisted living facilities and nursing homes, considerable attention was devoted to finding ways for seniors to remain in their own homes with little or no hired help. Sometimes such solutions are incredibly inexpensive and can be accomplished on a basic level by simply helping to remove obstacles such as slippery rugs, or adding a helpful object, such as a bench in the bathtub, allowing the resident to take a shower alone. Universal design practices – grab bars, wider door frames, barrier free entries and exits – can be introduced into existing dwellings at relatively little cost and also add years to the life expectancy of a home as well as a more fulfilling old age for its inhabitants.

An in-progress program, STL Village, was described to the group. It is ambitious, and is the result of years of thoughtful consideration and hard work. It connects individual homes of elderly men and women into a virtual village, providing necessary services and attention to special needs, and a path cleared of obstacles toward genuine independence. STL Village is scheduled to open in the spring of 2014.

Another ambitious notion, still wishful, involves looking critically at the city of St. Louis, evaluating its strengths, recognizing its shortcomings, with the intention of imposing design principals that would renovate it, make it over as a multi-generational city, one that integrates all age groups, rather than encouraging their segregation into ghettos of chronology, and provides for the sort of enrichment that comes when young folks learn from their elders, and vice versa, with the support and encouragement of the middle-aged population, also integrated into community life.

An important piece of this macro design elder-centric puzzle involves dissemination of public information – getting the word out about services that are available and how to obtain them. And then there is education, the foundation of all of this. In a broad sense the educational process should involve us all, not just the old, and certainly should not be left entirely to academics. A broad program of education, conducted inside and outside the academy (in places such as the Pulitzer Foundation) would help us to revise or discard old attitudes about how old people should live out their lives.

On a more specific level, radical innovation in the education of young designers would have enormous metalearning benefits, teaching them to dig deep into their own experiences and to think and to design buildings and objects not with 20-year-old brains and bodies but by bringing forth latent sensibilities and unflexed muscles in the service of the needs of their grandparents and eventually of themselves.

Environmental sustainability was mentioned as a key element in contemporary architecture, and in many ways its acceptance as a foundational design element has been revolutionary. A suggestion came forth expressing the need to broaden the scope of sustainability to include human resources, an addition that should involve concern for problems related to aging and how they might be affected by sharp, sensitive, health- and dignity-preserving design practices.

At the end of the evening, the participants, and this hanger-on, went out into the night bearing knowledge of ways to help to provide older women and men ways to live better, safer, more active, less isolated, more satisfying, happier lives.

Can we actually put this learning into practice? One hopes so. Design is basic, a key to success, and this is not “good” design the way we once thought of it – the Russel Wright sugar bowl, practical-beautiful Volvo automobile, Georg Jensen silver sensibilities, but elevating, even exalting design meant not simply to please but also to ennoble a population and to invest not simply in longevity, which can be excruciating, but in sustainable, productive, healthy and independent end-of-life years.

Often, solutions are simple and inexpensive. And when greater investment is called for, public support and political advocacy can bring the social system up to code to help pay the bills, to assure that human potential and resources are cultivated and respected rather than resigned to decline and neglect and desuetude.

In Wednesday evening’s conversation, although there was an element of preaching to the choir, the notion of constituent elements of socially beneficial design for the elderly was expanded for the participants.

These moments of enlightenment are of special meaning. They signify an overdue and sophisticated concern for bettering a time of life that deserves to be accorded special dignity rather than scorned with jokes, a far less anxious state of being earned for having toughed out the business of living, or simply, like Faulkner’s Dilsey, for having endured, and for having quietly and inexorably grown old with protections and simple pleasures a sympathetic society should (and can afford to) provide.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.