4 Ways To Design For The Youthful Elderly

The boom of healthy, independent retirees with decades left in their lives necessitates a new kind of urban design.

The world is aging. Thanks to better medicine and birth control, almost every country in the world has a higher proportion of older individuals than young people, and people are living longer than ever. This means that the world is facing a high influx of not just the elderly, who require end-of-life care, but also retirees who have decades of healthy, active lives ahead of them. As the global population ages, more communities designed with older people in mind will become necessary, especially in developed countries where extended families don’t necessarily live together. This younger set of old folks–whose lives no longer revolve around work, school, and childcare, but aren’t yet dependent on caretakers–present a unique set of design challenges.


Young Old: Urban Utopias of an Aging Society, a new book by architect Deane Simpson explores what an age-based infrastructure might look like, diving into the history of age-segregated retirement communities. Young-Old, a group of people defined in the 1970s, describes healthy and independent individuals (as opposed to old-old, the real geezers) who are typically between 60 and 75, though the category pertains more to health and non-working status than an exact age range. “Whereas old age was formerly characterized as a period of dependency and decrepitude, the Young-Old are defined by a longer period of independence and activity,” Simpson writes in the book’s introduction.

Here are four ways communities will be designed for the Young-Old:

Sun City, Arizona Tim Roberts Photography via Shutterstock

They will be billed as utopias.
“As a settlement inhabited by retirees, it has been imagined as a perfect and ideal environment free from the inconveniences of work, parenting, and education, and intentionally set apart from the images and dependence associated with old age,” Simpson writes of the modern retirement community. The earliest retirement communities were designed around eliminating pressures from work, childcare, boredom, and isolation. Retirement is framed–for those who can afford it–as an endless vacation. And the communities designed for the retired are still marketed as such. They’re just a long-term vacation resort. These communities will likely become even more numerous as the population skews older, and as people spend more years between retirement and becoming dependent on others for care in old age.

Huis ten Bosch, Japan Teerapat Ungsriwong via Shutterstock

They will be designed like theme parks.
While some retirement communities may feel like a carefully designed amusement park for bridge-playing old folks, some actually are part of theme parks. The Young-Old need social activity and recreation, but they don’t need jobs, making them the perfect residents for a Disney-fied retirement community. In 1992, a theme park called Huis Ten Bosch opened on 375 acres of land outside Nagasaki, Japan. Built to look like a miniature version of the Netherlands, this Disneyland-esque park is a town unto itself, with hotels, museums, a post office, a hospital, and residences. It was also designed with retirees in mind. The park’s 190 houses and apartments are largely populated by young retirees (the average resident is in her mid-fifties). Living in the park gives residents year-round access to its cultural and culinary amenities, which become a third space for people to gather and socialize. (Social isolation has been linked to higher mortality rates in older people.) Furthermore, its theme–a foreign culture–reinforces the idea that retirement is a vacation, helping the chronically overworked settle into the concept of years of leisure. (And the grandkids will sure enjoy visiting.)

Huis ten Bosch, Japan Flickr user Photo RNW

They will be self-governed.
Roosmoor Leisure World became one of Southern California’s premiere retirement destinations in the 1960s. In the late ’90s, it became the first age-segregated city in America, called Laguna Woods, home exclusively to residents 55 and up (and, in some cases, their younger spouses). In part, this allowed residents of an entirely demographically segregated community to opt out of supporting programs that don’t affect them, like, say, paying taxes for schools. Retirement communities, Simpson notes, are a form of privately governed urbanism, and they can be as large as small cities, with the amenities to match. The younger generation of elderly people will want a say in what goes on in their city, and they’re still active enough to make it happen themselves. (Especially those 75% of Tea Partiers who are middle aged and elderly, we bet.)

Greg and Jan Ritchie via Shutterstock

They will be mobile.
An estimated 2 to 3 million people in the U.S. live not in traditional homes, but in campers and RVs, according to Simpson, and the majority are elderly or retired. These nomadic retirees form a kind of mobile retirement community seasonally. Quartzsite, a small town along the Arizona-California border, has hosted a total of up to 2 million senior RV settlers each winter since the 1960s. Events, trade shows, and club meetings create a pop-up community for the season. RV aficionados report greater feelings of independence and freedom when they’re out “on the road.” And being a permanent traveler lends further to the dream that retirement is a vacation, one that will last even longer in the upcoming years (as long as anyone can afford to quit his or her job).


About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut