Creating Meaningful Senior-Friendly Spaces

By Manheimer, Ronald J. | Generations, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Creating Meaningful Senior-Friendly Spaces


Manheimer, Ronald J., Generations


A way of being at home in the world.

The twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) regarded human habitation as a fundamental expression of what it means to exist. He probably didn't have "senior-friendly" buildings, streetscapes, and communities in mind. Still, his approach leads us to pay closer attention to how meanings are created in habitable spaces and how these meanings work for or against humans flourishing at all ages.

Heidegger drew a distinction between a technological approach to the human-built environment that is primarily instrumental in how it treats architectural requirements, on the one hand, and an approach that honors the surrounding environment and evokes the unity of human experience. Heidegger pondered the etymology of the word build (the German bauen) and traced it to the Old English, Old High German baun, which means "to dwell," in the sense of remaining or staying in place (Heidegger, 1971). Heidegger distinguishes between the ordinary sense of "housing" or "taking shelter," as in occupying an office workplace or even residing in a tent, a condo, or a manor, and something more profound. He uses as an example a farmhouse in the Black Forest built more than 200 years ago by peasants. This humble structure, thoughtfully nestled into the south-facing, forested mountain slope, exemplifies the genuine quality of "dwelling" in its natural oneness with the topography, climatic changes, and in the way it safely shelters and gives a home to the generations who live there. Though his example is perhaps a bit sentimental, Heidegger alerts us to an important connotation of the word dwelling-a way of being at home in the world, of existing in intimate relationship to the environment, of how we may suffuse our being into a particular space.

We've all been to certain special places that speak to us of dwelling, not just sheltering. Some religious sanctuaries evoke our sense of the sacred and invite us to linger awhile. Kitchens are so frequently the gathering places at parties because kitchens put us at ease and help us feel we belong to a mutually nurturing environment. Occasionally we enter a museum that truly honors the works of art within and presents them in a way that invites our gaze, our visual touch, our participation in beauty. And there are natural spaces- the path beside a rushing creek, a mountain meadow, an arroyo in the high desert- that transport us from the chronological pulse of clock time to the expansive immediacy of the moment. Of the latter we say, "time seemed to stand still."

Can aging- and senior-friendly environments enable us to experience dwelling, not just adequate and safe housing that provides a shelter or streetscapes that are barrier-free? Raised pedestrian crossings, a feature in many senior-friendly streetscapes, slow down traffic and make it safer to stroll from sidewalk to sidewalk. Motion-sensing sliding glass doors make it easier to enter a public building compared to heavy doors that require tugging or revolving ones that may be turning faster than we can walk. Such aging-friendly features are attractive amenities, of course. But they do not necessarily address the notion of dwelling that we consider here.

If you have walked the winding streets of a village in Tuscany or the south of France, you have experienced the possibility of dwelling. If you have visited the Louisiana Museum north of Copenhagen and were surprised to enter through a modest country cottage connected to a series of intimate modern spaces that presented works of art one room at a time, each with its own special light and height and colored walls, then you have experienced a place where you can dwell together with each art work as it radiates its unique presence. If you have visited certain assisted living facilities in the Netherlands that house restaurants and shops on the first floor where residents and local citizens mix and mingle in natural concourse, then you have seen places that encourage dwelling together.

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