Participatory Design Studio on Aging: How do you want to live? [GUEST POST]

Near the end of a participatory design study at the Business Innovation Factory (BIF) this month, someone suggested that the one question best summing up all our work that day on redefining aging was: How do you want to live?

It was a eureka moment for me, distilling into six simple words what should be the prime directive when making both personal and public policy decisions for growing old.

It also embodies pretty much exactly what American culture that spends a couple of billion dollars a year on anti-aging products does not do. The name itself - anti-aging - is patently ageist and makes evident America's fundamental aversion to old people.

With only the smallest of successes, I've spent the past ten years railing against the general consensus that old people are weak, smelly, ugly, greedy, none too bright and subject to every gross medical affliction about which you can say “Eew.” That's what the media – which IS American culture – tells us ad nauseum all day every day.

So it was thrilling, a few weeks ago, to open an invitation to this study group with a refreshingly different starting point about growing old:

”We believe that we need to look at aging differently,” wrote one of the organizers, “that by framing aging through the lens of care and increasing weakness, we’re missing whole opportunities to facilitate healthy aging – ones that support optimal personal choice in how we age...”

And further: “We contribute and grow through all of our years, not just those before the arbitrary marker of 65. How we frame aging can determine the choices available to us and what systems and services are built to support us in this period of our lives.”

I hardly ever read anything as positive about aging and I felt like I had found some soul mates. Or rather, miraculously, they had somehow found me. And so it was. I returned home energized, excited and eager to apply a lot of new knowledge.

There were 12 of us invitees, mostly middle-aged and older, who had been thoughtfully chosen, each of us passionately engaged in our astonishingly diverse styles of working to improve living for elders.

Among us were a woman teaching dance to Parkinson's patients, another running a non-profit that makes urgently needed repairs to homes of the poor in the rural south, a man who keeps 99-year-olds engaged in living by teaching them to write poetry.

A corporate manager finds ways to redesign large retail stores to meet the needs of elders and others, another tracks down permanent shelter for homeless elders and a retiree from California shows neighbors in his condo how easy it can be to connect and make friends with one another – even when they think it's not.

Following instructions from the talented BIF leaders, we worked our assignments that day together and in smaller groups imagining what a more productive future in which to grow old could be.

Ideas were not the problem. Instead, so many were intriguing that the difficulty was choosing the few on which to concentrate, and hone them into specific steps that could lead to better ways of aging in our communities.

By the end of the day, a theme had emerged within the variety of our efforts: making opportunities and places where like-minded elders can engage in meaningful activity and make use of their lifetimes of experience and knowledge to continue contributing to the betterment of their communities. And do it inter-generationally.

There was not nearly enough time to follow up on all the specifics that zig-zagged around the room as we sparked off one another, each person's words tumbling over those of others.

Flying home the next day, I had the best kind of hangover – still energized, uplifted, excited, in the moment, neurons firing on all cylinders as I thought of new ways I can apply what I had learned.

And then I had a personal revelation.

Although I am happily engaged and busy with the elder advocacy work I do on my blog and in my community, I realized that I embody one example of the lack of “personal choice in how we age” that BIF wants to rectify.

Retirement was nowhere on my radar when I was laid off in 2004. But at age 63, I couldn't find anyone who would hire me no matter how impressive my resume and after a year of futile effort, I was forced to bow out of the world of gainful employment long before I was ready.

So, as important to me as the good ideas I came home from BIF with was the thrill of being back in a familiar workplace milieu, even for one day, collaborating with a bunch of smart, dynamic, creative people.

My personal revelation was a reminder that how some of us want to live is to continue working, to continue to apply our years of experience and knowledge for as long as we want and are capable.

By Ronni Bennett
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