Growing old is "hard work" but it can be fun, insists Berkeley architect Susanne Stadler.
Stadler is co-founder of At Home with Growing Older, a group that includes social workers, psychologists and designers interested in promoting home-like settings, rather than institutional ones, as a "major contributor to healthy aging."
She addressed a March 21 housing conference at Mitchell Park Community Center, which drew nearly 200 local residents to discuss the housing concerns of seniors. A large majority of those attending the conference, which was sponsored by Avenidas and the City of Palo Alto, said they do not plan to move and want to stay in their homes for the rest of their lives.
Age-friendly design goes well beyond ramps and traditional grab bars to include beautiful, "human-centered" design for all generations, playfulness and integration into the larger community, Stadler said, showing photos that included senior housing attached to a Swiss sports complex and a bathroom conceived as a "living room," with places to sit down and colorful, sporty-looking grips to provide support.
"If we can get past our denial and avoidance not look at aging as a weakness but as a fact of life then we can talk about what we need and ask for help when we need it," she said. "Home is the base for our well-being, and it should support the physical and emotional changes that age brings."
Stadler's own views about aging shifted dramatically when she moved from her native Austria to Berkeley to attend graduate school 30 years ago.
"In Austria I was used to adults being old in a certain way," she said. "It seemed that age dictated a certain dress code and code of behavior certain 'dos and don'ts' dignified, demanding respect from others.
"In Berkeley, things were different. People of all ages and abilities were out and about, and you couldn't judge people's status in society by their clothes. It was more colorful, bolder and definitely more fun. I was hooked, and I've been here ever since."
Still, Americans can learn from Europe's greater experience with aging societies and its track record on integrating seniors into centers of community life, she said.
In Salzburg, Austria, for example, Stadler said her mother's Mirabel Senior Residence is attached to "one of the city's most popular cafes (Fingerhut, or "Thimble"), which is buzzing all day long.
"The senior residents have a private entry into the cafe. In that way the cafe, if desired, becomes part of their larger living space."
In Basel, the 15-year-old St. Jakob Park soccer stadium Switzerland's largest sports arena incorporates a retirement home with more than 100 apartments, a gym and a shopping mall.
Stadler advises seniors to be proactive in making sure their homes work for them. Older people often adapt to annoyances rather than make even small changes that could improve their daily lives, she said.
"Most of us adapt to inconveniences for many, many years, but then there comes a time for everybody an illness, a broken bone, knee surgery, hip replacement when suddenly we notice that something is off in our environment.
"Take a fresh look at your house now and say, 'Is my bed really in the right room? Why does it have to be in the room where it's been for the past 30 years? Where else would I like to wake up?'"
She displayed a photo of a bathroom that uses colorful grips designed for climbing walls, rather than traditional grab bars, for support.
"We can learn from the tools and gadgets of extreme sports aging is like an extreme sport," she said. "But instead of being about impairment, it can be about stretching yourself, being playful. We do need the same supports, but also the same imagination that has gone into these tools."
Stairs aren't always bad but can be great exercise tools, she said.
"Consider building in the incentive for daily exercise in your home putting an exercise bar on the wall or a soft floor in the hallway so, as you walk by, you can do your daily exercise," she said.
Age-friendly design doesn't have to be something new, she said. Sometimes it's already there, such as in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed interior with a wall of wide-spaced open shelving, displaying a series of large paintings.
"All of us have too much, and people don't have a chance to display what they have," she said. "These displays can be changed quite easily."
Becoming an "activist" for human-centered design means discovering your home's potential to adapt to you and expecting practical, creative and elegant solutions, she said.
In a separate presentation, Coldwell Banker Realtor Nancy Goldcamp said nearly 85 percent of seniors say they want to stay in their current house for the rest of their lives and that, statistically, 70 percent of them will remain in the home where they lived at their 65th birthday.
Clients over the decades have told her that, after fixing up their homes to put them on the market, they regret they did not make the improvements earlier so they could have enjoyed them, Goldcamp said.
She showed a series of "before and after" photos of minor improvements that made homes more livable, including adding stairs from a deck to a lawn, refreshing an unused balcony and adding walls to create a separate unit for a graduate student or a caregiver.
Transition specialist Cindy Hofen of Managing Moves & More, Mountain View, implored conference-goers to begin de-cluttering and "right-sizing" their possessions now, even though they do not intend to move.
"Close your eyes and think of your home as a clutter-free zone," she said. "Creating space creates opportunity.
"Keep only things that speak to your heart and disperse the rest. If it doesn't bring you joy, it doesn't belong in your house."
Contributing Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.