Improving NYC for Aging Populations

by Zoe Banzon, Sudeepti Rachakonda, Raissa Xie, and Darcy Keester

Urban Systems Lab
Dec 18, 2020 · 8 min read

COVID-19 has torn through vulnerable communities and surfaced the inequities of our world. Among the most vulnerable of these communities are seniors, who make up roughly 73% of COVID-19 deaths in New York City. As we see how places like retirement homes, public spaces, and grocery stores become less safe and less accessible for seniors, it becomes clear that vulnerable groups, like the aging population, and the challenges that they face in the urban environment should be put front and center rather than in the periphery when designing for urban life.

In light of COVID-19 and beyond, we propose the following ideas to help seniors age in place:

  1. Expanding the role of postal workers;
  2. Introducing seniors-only hours in New York;
  3. Prompting intergenerational relationships digitally; and
  4. Creating joint housing arrangements for seniors and affordable housing residents.

We view these solutions as holistic approaches to improving cities for the aging population as it can address concerns about mental well-being, access, agency, and physical safety — which can potentially be beneficial to other populations as well.

Expanding the role of postal workers

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In other countries, post offices also take on more of a role in communities than just mail. In Korea and Japan, the post office is part of the financial services market and offers savings accounts, insurance products and even train and airline bookings. In Japan, the Japan Post Holdings group created a public-private partnership to provide lifestyle support services for senior citizens. We are inspired by these multifunctional post offices, private and public partnerships, and how government services can be extended to better support people.

Based on these examples, we see the potential of the post officer’s role to not only deliver mail from house to house, but also to provide support to those they deliver mail to.

This can be especially comforting for seniors who have little to no physical and social interaction with others. Not only is this an opportunity for seniors to stay connected with their loved ones, as it is also a worthwhile opportunity to rethink the US Postal Service’s role in our communities.

  1. Post officers can visit homes of seniors and check-in on them by asking how they are doing and providing any necessary social support. Family members and friends of seniors can subscribe to this service at an affordable rate (priced on a sliding scale), which will in turn contribute to increased revenue for the money-strapped US Postal Service.
  2. Postal workers can exchange notes or log responses for family members to look at, which can help family members track the well-being of their loved one.

Introducing seniors-only hours in New York

Inspired by the seniors only grocery store hour guidelines, we propose expanding the seniors-only hour concept to other aspects of public life. This entails that during certain hours of the day, while most individuals stay indoors, seniors can take time to go outdoors. By implementing this rule, seniors can have time outside to exercise or take a stroll while feeling safe about doing so. While we understand this guideline will be difficult to enforce and needs to be examined further, we believe that by having different hours for different neighborhoods, and messaging that encourages an “honor system” — while these may not make for a true seniors-only New York — might alleviate heavy crowding during selected hours. This rule will remain voluntary, as we hope that people will follow it out of respect and safety for seniors. People should feel comfortable talking to one another while they are outside, and discourage being outside unless necessary during seniors-only hours in their neighborhood, though none of this will not be enforced.

Aside from designated hours, providing designated areas for seniors within public spaces can be another configuration of this initiative. Spaces such as parks, plazas, and public libraries can have senior-exclusive areas that will be designed particularly for their comfort and pleasure. This could look like having a seniors garden within a park or a seniors patio at the library, where there can be ergonomic chairs for the elderly and programs like exercise and bonding activities.

Prompting intergenerational relationships digitally

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We propose using intergenerational programming to create connections between children and seniors that will combat loneliness and psychological fallout brought about by prolonged isolation. In a Stanford study, the impact of the lack of social connection on an individual’s physical and mental health included increased vulnerability to anxiety, depression, antisocial behavior. The implications of this also manifest as higher inflammation at the cellular level, slower recovery from disease, etc. With the pandemic limiting in-person interactions, ways to stay connected have to be reimagined.

Ideas for such programs include:

  1. Incorporating a Pen Pal program to connect seniors and children, which can be done through a partnership between schools, youth centers, senior centers, retirement homes, and nursing homes. This is inspired by similar initiatives in other parts of the world that started in the beginning of the pandemic, such as: the One Letter One Smile initiative in France and Belgium and the pen pal program for seniors in Australia.
  2. Providing technology training to seniors to connect them to digital platforms such as online exercises, meditation classes, discussion groups, and workshops. The New York Public Library has thousands of similar free, public programs such as the TechConnect program, and a separate initiative focused on providing seniors with access to necessary hardware and software will be a valuable first step for them to participate in these online programs.

Such efforts can also potentially inspire the design of devices and digital interfaces for seniors.

Creating joint housing arrangements for seniors and affordable housing residents

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NYC has long had a housing affordability problem and the city can also be very isolating, especially in light of social distancing. We propose an affordable housing model that combats social isolation; housing units that pair seniors who live alone with individuals in need of affordable housing, for example, students or artists.

As a way to subsidize their rent, individuals might contribute by helping the senior to do chores which are too physically demanding, walking their dog, checking in on them when they are sick, grocery shopping, and spending time with them. This model will provide the social and community support that is so important for seniors, but the model is really about reciprocity. Seniors have much to offer the relationship as well; they have lived experiences to share and they often have more time for things like cooking or caring for houseplants. Additionally, seniors aren’t the only ones who experience social isolation, especially during COVID-19; many individuals experience loneliness when they live far away from family or just by themselves, and stress when dealing with things like a job loss or a health concern.

Through this housing model, both parties will gain greater, more intergenerational social connections and in the case of a future pandemic, can be a part of an isolation pod together, ensuring the continued physical and mental well-being of each other. In the case of a future pandemic or similar event, contracts may need to be revised to ensure the safety of seniors and the extra consideration by the young people who live with them. In this case, students and artists, as proposed below, could make good companions for seniors as they are more able to isolate themselves due to their primary job being ones which can potentially be done from home.

There are many possible arrangements for this:

  1. Affordable Student Units in a Market Rate Seniors Building

Modeled partially after Humanitas Retirement home in the Netherlands

Unoccupied rooms in seniors-owned houses will become potential living spaces for students who are deemed to have financial need, which could be determined based on an application, interview, and selection process facilitated by partner universities to ensure that the chosen students are a good fit for the program. Each chosen student will be trained on how to support seniors and given a contract to sign which stipulates that they agree to a set of rules tailored by each senior (for example no parties in the unit, no loud noise past 9 pm, must put away dishes daily) then paired up with a senior buddy to spend a certain amount of time hanging out or helping them out each week. In return, students get subsidized rent and their own living space.

2. Artists-in-Retirement-Residence

Modeled after Judson Manor in Cleveland, Ohio

Similar to artists-in-residence programs, artists and seniors live together in a housing complex. Artists are given living and work spaces and give lessons and/or performances as well as socially contribute to the retirement home.

3. Home Share

Modeled after the Toronto Home Share Project

Seniors who own their property and have an extra room lease it out to qualified individuals with financial need. Individuals contribute socially as well as by taking on household chores and errands

Reflections

The above mentioned proposals aim to help seniors age in place by redesigning city services to mitigate health risks and allow for increased agency. Seniors should be at the center of planning and implementation rather than at the periphery. We believe that the future of the city post pandemic needs to prioritize the needs of vulnerable populations — which means seniors and other populations should be involved as power holders and decision makers in urban design. Solutions designed for seniors in turn make the city better for everyone. Addressing the needs of seniors will greatly help to create a more just New York City.

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All four teammates are currently pursuing their Master’s degrees in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons School of Design, The New School.

Zoe Banzon is a design researcher who aspires to bring a human-centered approach to co-facilitating sustainable change for misrepresented communities. Her background is in experience design and communication design for development (i.e. science communication, educational communication, development journalism, and community broadcasting) which both serve as a foundation for the social equity work that she focuses on today.

Darcy Keester is a design researcher who is passionate about creating healthy urban experiences using methods that imagine provocative futures. Her background is in environmental design and community development where she led an initiative called Upcycle Vancouver which culminated in the community build of the city of Vancouver’s first non-profit owned and operated parklet.

Sudeepti Rachakonda is a design strategist who sees design as a tool that can be used to elevate peoples’ voices, particularly in urban design. Her work experiences span across the design process, from user research to business strategy to storytelling, with experience working in education, management consulting, and non-profit project management.

Raissa Xie is a designer and researcher who previously worked in digital product design for various technology companies, before joining Parsons to explore how design can be used and adapted as a decision-making and advocacy tool to facilitate conversations at the intersection of policy, technology, and social sciences to create more equitable futures.

Resilience

A forum for research, design, writing, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities

Urban Systems Lab

Written by

Research, design, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities. http://urbansystemslab.com/

Resilience

Resilience is a quarterly publication co-produced by the Urban Systems Lab at the New School, providing a unique forum to share strategies in design, data visualization, and interdisciplinary scholarship on urban ecology, environmental justice, and sustainable cities.

Urban Systems Lab

Written by

Research, design, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities. http://urbansystemslab.com/

Resilience

Resilience is a quarterly publication co-produced by the Urban Systems Lab at the New School, providing a unique forum to share strategies in design, data visualization, and interdisciplinary scholarship on urban ecology, environmental justice, and sustainable cities.

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