It’s a very exciting time to be involved with the field of aging studies, but then I’ve been fascinated with the subject for over 35 years. When I started this work, people would often express curiosity or find it humorous, even depressing, that anyone would be interested in such things. I am amused, at times, when aging celebrity authors “discover” the topic, as if they were the first to encounter the experience and, by virtue of personal reflection, have some premium on knowledge of the subject. That’s ok. After all, aging is certainly a personal learning experience, a process of discovery no doubt, as is life in general, no?
What I find particularly exciting, however, is that we are finally reconsidering aging beyond the narrow confines of its definition as a personal, individual journey. Moreover, we are expanding our definition of aging beyond its focus on the body alone, despite the commodification of aging through every imaginable product that Madison Avenue can hype. Finally, we are giving serious attention to the notion that aging and disability find their manifestation not in the body but in the relationship between the body and its surrounding environment. Necessarily, this politicizes the issues of aging and disability and transforms aging from a personal challenge to a community responsibility.
Through the lens of community, we can now re-envision the study of aging as a “place-based” endeavor. Aging activists (and disability advocates) can now align with the environmental movement in the new emphasis on livability and sustainable communities. A focus on supportive environments now joins the traditional aging-network emphasis on supportive services. Perhaps this new theoretical base for the discipline will attract the youthful attention that the field has always lacked. Yet, some clever marketing of our own might be in order, as our field continues to occupy the dark corners of academia.
Throughout the country, an aging-in-community movement is taking shape. Often, I observe, the impetus is provided by groups of women approaching late life, sharing concerns about their future, and sometimes driven by harsh realities of caregiving for elderly parents within a less than adequate system of care and support. Planning models are emerging and aging activists are indeed becoming educated about municipal planning, zoning, and the critical relationships among mobility, housing and land use decision making.
The AdvantAge Initiative (AI) planning model, including a new, online version of the AI community survey is being tested in three diverse settings: very rural Sonora, California; Georgetown, Texas, a rapidly growing retirement destination; and Clinton/Chelsea/Hell’s Kitchen neighborhoods in the thick of the Manhattan performing arts districts. Despite significant differences in the character of these communities, I am amazed at the degree of enthusiasm that people have for getting to the urgent work of planning community futures. Similarly, here in Indiana, my recent workshop on Livable Communities for Aging in Place filled the 35 participant slots within about a week of its advertisement. Something is clearly going on here. There is a pent-up demand for communities to face the future and a growing realization that change may occur at the local level long before the contentious federal debate about Social Security is ever resolved.