THE ATTITUDE: Acceptance of Aging as an Ascending Passage

Aging beautifully means that the power of the mind, heart, and spirit are rising. The growth and evolution of the inner life may be the special opportunity of aging. Because of this, we may think of aging as an ascending passage, not a descending state.

Monsignor Fahey, past director of Fordham's Third Age Center speaks of the opportunities of the third age experienced after age 60. He maintains that the first age is from birth to 25 years. During this age we concentrate on biological development, learning, and survival. The second age is 25-60 where the overriding issues are family and productive work, applying the lessons of the first age to social and professional responsibilities. The third age is a less pressured more reflective period. It is a time of emotional maturity, intellect, memories and imagination. This is the period for giving back to society the lessons, experiences and resources collected. People of this age should be a living bridge between yesterday, today and tomorrow. Older people should be the glue of society, not its ashes.

A personal note from Cynthia Leibrock on the power of giving back…

I have a brother with schizophrenia. When he was a teenager, he became a different person within a two week period of time. He is now is his sixties, and we have not had him completely back since that time. He functions quite well with the wonderful medications available today. He lives independently in his own apartment, works part time in my business (and in a sheltered workshop), sings in his church choir, and delivers for Meals on Wheels. He has done well because he has had tremendous family support and lots of prayer. But like many disabled and elderly people, he has been inappropriately housed in state institutions and nursing homes. Each time it took him several years to recover from the blow of these experiences. Finally, a residential treatment center was built in our neighborhood with house parents. He can now be stabilized in several weeks, rather than several years.

This is the power of design. Products and environments create people with disabilities or empower them. People are not disabled by their physical or mental differences; we all have physical and mental differences. We are only disabled when we can't do what we want to do. Designers have the power to make this difference, the choice to empower or disable by design.

Designers also have the creative skills to integrate the technology and it's users or to segregate by design. It's not O.K. to place disabled people in institutions, to segregate people in wheelchairs to ramps or separate bathrooms, or to force older people to live in healthcare facilities. We have the technology to prevent this, but it is all too easy to design products and projects which become emblems of age and disability providing a "separate but equal" approach. Designers must use their creative skills to universally design products and projects which accommodate all users, not just those of average size and ability.

In doing so, designers can make an enormous contribution. By designing universally, they can leave a design legacy that will continue to contribute for decades after they are gone.

Buy a book on universal design and housing choices for older people. All proceeds are donated to Rehabitat.