Aging in the Right Place, Garden-Wise: Five Elderyarding Principles

Older woman in front

The "Aging in the Right Place" Debate

Post World War II, the housing market made a shift that is still being felt today. As veterans returned home from the wars in Europe and the Pacific, the vast suburban sprawl was born. Neighborhoods of small single-family homes became the place for returning veterans to begin to build their families and their new lives after the war.

In this country, we've both glorified and scorned the suburbs as a place to live. Supporters have pointed to the private ownership of detached single family homes with their manicured lawns and cul-de-sac streets as the American Dream. The suburbs became the perfect place to raise children in a safe environment. The automobile gave Americans the flexibility to live on the outskirts of cities, where work, shopping and playing were easily accessed.

Today, America's suburbs are aging, and it’s questionable whether this is a good or a bad thing. As more Boomers are choosing to age in place, the question has become are they aging in the right place? This question is important not only for older adults but also for all citizens and taxpayers determining how to accommodate this aging population.

Aging in the Right Place: A Changing Demographic Reality

A 2015 article in the Washington Post caused an uproar in the aging in place community. It reminded us that getting old is a reality that most of us avoid facing until it may be too late to change. The article discussed a book by Stephen Golant, Ph.D., a University of Florida professor. Golant is a geographer with a special interest in people-and-environment questions applied to older populations. In his book, Aging in the Right Place, he argues that aging in place in a single family home in a familiar suburban neighborhood is not really a good solution for most seniors.

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His premise is that too many people end up in poor housing, isolated from their community because the housing stock is old and the suburbs model doesn't work well as people age. One expert in the field of healthcare and aging, Laura Mitchell, disagrees strongly with the book’s premise in her LinkedIn Pulse article Rotting in Place. Mitchell argues that preventive action and many new enabling technologies can mitigate the issues raised in by Galant. One preventive example is Elderyarding®.

Elderyarding® Is an Aging in Place Approach to Your Landscape

Are you aging in the right place, garden-wise? How do you know that what’s right at 65 will still be right at 75 and at 85? It's tough to admit that as you age, you may be are less and less willing to make changes in the place you live. Perhaps because it's a habit, maybe because you are comfortable, maybe because you have seemingly reliable resources nearby, or perhaps because it's merely because you like to control what you can as you become frailer and less independent.

As more people are choosing to remain in their homes and “age in place.” it's essential to create a plan. For example, saying you want a “low maintenance landscape” is not really a plan. A plan considers your health history and that of your family, then applies that specifically to your yard. 

If your father and his father both died of heart attacks in their 70’s and you have and also an exercise circuit and plantings for year-round landscape scenes that fascinate when viewed from a bedroom. If you are likely to suffer from depression, which occurs more in the elderly, an Elderyarding® garden could include therapeutic elements tailored to your sensory responses to nature and be designed to entice you outside.

The Elderyarding® concept is built on anticipating change. You have to be willing to think ahead, to plan. Elderyarding® will include design for your yard at various ages as you and your partner or spouse or family caregiver change physically. As you age, it’s smart to plan ahead, it’s smart to consider less-comfortable outcomes, it’s smart to take control to avoid “rotting in place.” Are you ready?

What Is Elderyarding®?

Elderyarding® is the design and development of adaptable gardens and yards that meet the lifetime needs of homeowners who choose to age in place in their home. Here at Second Summer®, the fuel for the concept was extensive research on how to design outdoor environments for senior apartment complexes, assisted living facilities, memory care centers, and nursing homes.  The research was tweaked and adapted to develop five key principles for Elderyarding® that are the groundwork for landscape designs.

1. Safety

The yard should be safe to navigate. Paths and walkways should be designed to handle a walker or wheelchair and caution taken to design surfaces that eliminate tripping hazards. If a hard surface isn't needed immediately, installation of a soft surface such as mulch is an alternative. Lighting should clearly and evenly illuminate walkway edges, steps, and locations with faucets or recycling bins. Resting spots and handholds can be gracefully and subtly incorporated. The yard should still be lovely with safety included.

2. Aesthetics

The colors, fragrances, textures, and sounds in your yard should evoke delight and pleasing memories. Studies have shown a strong relationship between scents and memories. And even if the actual plants differ, the shapes and colors of foliage and flowers can be enjoyable for today and help recall enjoyment from the past. Because your senses will fade with age, the yard is a wonderful place to stimulate the neural connections in the brain and help keep both memories and senses sharp. Your yard should be customized for your preferences and experiences, to strengthen further and support successful aging.

3. Easy Maintenance

Handling tasks and maintenance in your yard should be easy. Getting the paper, checking your mail, taking out the trash, watering patio containers should all be safe an easy. Manufacturers have begun offering many improved tools and equipment designed to make outdoor tasks easier to do if your joints begin to stiffen with arthritis or your strength fades. Principles of physics still hold true! And tool design shows these principles off. The effort happens as a result of the tool’s shape and operation instead of brute strength from your muscles.

4. Ease of Access and Enticement

As you age, getting outside can become more difficult, especially if a chronic illness is involved. Yet, studies have repeatedly shown that fresh air and exercise, including a daily 20-minute dose of sunlight for vitamin D, are important for maintaining good health, relieving stress, and helping you to heal more rapidly. The garden should be close enough to delight. Change that big patch of lawn stretching from the house to garden beds or hedges at the boundaries of the yard. Make it easy to see and to reach aromatic shrubs or shady trees with islands or beds in the middle of the yard instead. Move those “border” plantings closer and switch from high-maintenance annuals and perennials to shrubs and small trees of all kinds.

5. Planning for the Future

An Elderyarding® design anticipates the future and is ready to accommodate later needs. The plan should give careful thought to items such as path surfaces, additional lighting, and height for controls such as faucets and bird feeders. Your yard should include comfortable seating in locations to minimize the glare that’s tough on aging eyes. Think about plant combinations in doorway gardens that stir curiosity and invite stepping outside to explore, favorite plants moved to nearby containers, even window boxes to enjoy from indoors. A practical design deliberately thinks about how the garden can change to better support the aging body physically and mentally with clear understanding of your body’s transitions.

As you consider an aging in place lifestyle, careful outdoor planning can help determine how your suburban house can remain your home as you grow older. Understand that your needs will change through your 60's, 70's and beyond, then anticipate those changes to keep you living and gardening safely in your home. With a little preparation, the answer to the question “are you aging in the right place?” can be a resounding yes!

Ann Yakimovicz