Aging in place came into prominence in the 1970s, with research investigating why older adults preferred to age where they lived versus being moved to facilities outside their communities. The emphasis was on place, and the interaction of the older adult with their environment. Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs) were an outgrowth of this research and emphasized providing services where large numbers of older adults live. While these communities were not designed with older adults in mind, a significant percentage of the populations that lives in NORCs is older adults.
But a recent study published by the Joint Center of Housing Studies of Harvard University noted that NORCs scored lower on the AARP livability index. This scale considers housing affordability and access; neighborhood access to life, work and play; convenient and safe transportation; a clean environment; the opportunity for civic and social engagement; health access quality and prevention; and the opportunity for inclusion as well as innovative possibilities.
While the Harvard study pointed out NORC strengths like social engagement, environment and housing, the scores were significantly lower when it came to opportunity and neighborhood scoring. Thus raising the question, When is aging in place stuck in place?
Two other theories informing the concept of aging in place are Ecological Systems Theory and Continuity Theory. The ecological approach looks at how people interact with their physical, social and cultural environments and how each influences and shapes the other. Neugarten, Havighaurst, and Tobin (1968) put forth Continuity Theory in response to Disengagement Theory, the belief that elders remove themselves from society, further developed by Atchley (1989). It states that people tend to sustain the same basic values, interests and behaviors as they age through personality, social roles, relationships and leisure activities, which advance a sense of control.
The Dawn of Afro-Futurism
Afro-futurism means using the intersectionality of race, innovation and technology to visualize a future where people of African descent are liberated fully and integrally as part of society with full equity (Womack, 2013; Anderson and Jones, 2017). Mark Dery coined the term in 1994, when much of science fiction did not include African Americans. It has expanded to include a technological future, but also encompasses the past where African Americans have been erased from scientific history.
For example, the Underground Railroad could be thought of as using the technology of the present to imagine and operationalize a future where Africans are free. The film “Black Panther” is one depiction of a future where African Americans, via technology and innovation, live in a world untouched by colonialism or imperialism, in which there are still tribal divisions, yet also unifying belief sets and commitments to cultural thriving supported by technology, but not assimilating or bending to its interventions.
What is Age Futurism?
When trying to understand age futurism, we first should expand our view of older adults as ancestors. Ancestor generally refers to someone who has died. Depending upon our cultural traditions, ancestors may not factor at all into our understanding of our identities; or they may be acknowledged through yearly traditions, in place naming, physical attributes, etc. Still, the term "ancestor" is bounded by a transition from the living.
If we expand the term ancestor to include walking ancestors (Gumbs, 2016; Gumbs, 2020) or still living older adults, we begin to think of ourselves as people who can envision a future and live toward that future. It encourages us to be aware of our intergenerational responsibilities and live with a generosity that dismantles individualism for the sake of selfishness alone, in favor of developing a collective, shared vision for the future.
Age futurism encourages us to view older adults as walking ancestors. When we do that, we broaden our vision of the possibilities of what growing older in our society can and should be. How might technology support a lifelong engagement with the community that continues one's generosity throughout the life cycle and potentially beyond?
Afro-futurism means visualizing a future where people of African descent are liberated fully and integrally as part of society with full equity.
This question and others connect with the movement workers and scholars draw upon from the Afro-futurist work of Octavia Butler in conceptualizing and engaging in a strategy to acknowledge, among other things, that change is inescapable, and that to effect change, we must draw upon a keen understanding of effective design (often best seen in the natural world through incorporating biomimicry into human engineering), and that our thriving is dependent upon collaborating across our unique qualities.
Most older people live in the community, and not in long-term care facilities. However, old age is often viewed as a time of loss instead of seeing older people as vital, contributing community members. Older adults are perfectly capable of mastering technology but are portrayed by the media as living in the past. Age futurism goes beyond inclusion and integration. It combines technology use and innovation but resists the notion that older adults are separated from society based on their age. In this view, technology can be adopted to maintain vibrant connections with our elders.
Ageism’s Continued Effects
When the COVID-19 pandemic began to besiege our elders, across the world, retirement communities closed their doors to keep elders safe. Many pictures appeared of loved ones visiting their elders outside windows. Research remains to be done on the social connectedness of elders who were and were not able to use technology to spend more in-depth quality time with their family and kinship networks. An extension of that research might include exploring the technology-supported re-establishment of relationships that, before the pandemic, had been strained by geographic locations and changing physical mobility.
Age futurism is devoid of age discrimination or restrictions and sees each member of society as vital to a community's survival regardless of physical or mental ability. The World Health Organization indicates that children as young as age 4 form negative opinions about older people. Ageism contributes to poor health and mental health outcomes, limits employment opportunities, promotes the internalization of negative stereotypes that cause the engagement in risky behaviors, as well as an earlier death by 7.5 years.
In the United States, there is a constant and consistent effort to pit generations against one another. Examples are ways to save Social Security, ranging from higher employee/employer contributions and or cutting benefits; pushing older people out of the workforce to make room for younger, less expensive employees; lack of access to transportation, community-based services, health and mental health care, and even internet access due to the digital divide.
Age futurism calls for spaces where older people are not segregated where they live, where services are provided or where they socialize, etc. Technology and resource allocations are designed with elders as nodes of connection rather than outlier recipients of services.
Changing the lens to one of age futurism is critical at this time as we have lost so many elders due to the pandemic. In some communities, elders died at such an astronomical rate that the keepers of community memory are now gone, creating such a cultural disconnect that the soul of some communities has been lost.
Age Futurism in Operation
There is a mythology that older people can't manage new technology. The level of use is dependent upon education, income and access, and drops for the oldest old, but generally, technology use is the same between those ages 50 and older and those ages 18 to 49. Technology use, however, is more than using Facebook or other social media. Assistive technology that is simple and easily accessible can be immediately used to support full engagement in areas of passion and interest. For elders who have challenges typing, Chrome has plug-ins that allow dictation into email; Google Docs also has a dictation function, which allows an elder to dictate text and work with others in their social and professional networks to create scholarly and creative work.
Older adults exist in a spectrum from independence, to reliance on community-based services or on family, to placement in a nursing home. How do we integrate elders into the community?
One idea would be to promote intergenerational engagement by partnering with schools at all levels to learn about their community through elder involvement. Elders can be called upon to teach what existed in a community, via low and high tech. Low tech might mean developing a partnership between a community center attended by older adults and a local school—to identify long-term community residents and local elementary or secondary students engaged in oral storytelling or community history projects. Students could walk the neighborhood with their teachers, where they could meet with local elders to learn about their lives, the businesses and people that lived in the community, what changes they have seen and what they hope for the future.
‘Age futurism encourages us to view older adults as walking ancestors.’
An abandoned building could live again in the stories of the past, and young people can envision what it could be in the future—transforming the neighborhood. Students could film elders and create mini-documentaries or even augmented reality maps in which children of the future could also walk the neighborhood, and just by pointing their phones at parts of a map, they would be guided to videos of those elders telling their stories, long after they are gone.
A high-tech version might have the community center (not a segregated senior center) providing a group of elders with technology to use Zoom to address local students and record the sessions. Students could create Google Maps of the places the elders identify, doing research to find archival photographs, and embed video from the interviews into the map. They could even use a feature like Knightlab’s Timeline to create a digital timeline that has the same information (videos, archival photographs and even archival music recording links).
Another high-tech version to center elders as a dynamic part of the community is to use storytelling with elders who are experiencing dementia. Family members and trained facilitators could work with elders to gather their stories and then, in partnership with virtual reality designers, create three-dimensional virtual reality spaces in which the older adult could be invited to relive the experience they have described, correcting the memory in conversation. This could also be a wonderful tool to allow a family member into the memories of their elders as a bridge of visceral and emotional connection across time; it could be a present moment that allows two people to share the past. These stories and virtual reality experiences can be held in community libraries and serve as historical repositories for the community.
Time for Leaders to Step Up
Of course, the future is also right now. If we acknowledge ourselves as walking ancestors and center ourselves with our elders, we also must support the skill development necessary for this future we envision and want for ourselves.
Who are the app developers who can get elders access to information in real time and connect them into the community, regardless of physical or mental ability?
How do urban designers shift city design to center on community gardens, public resources like swimming pools (for low-impact exercise) and swift and inexpensive access to public transportation?
Who are the urban and rural leaders who will re-evaluate the compositions of their councils to ensure there is always representation from elders and youth, making decisions informed by intergenerational wisdom?
How can social systems of support undermine the devastation that happens when there is a break in cultural knowledge transference? We know the negative outcomes experienced by indigenous communities whose children were stolen to boarding schools, their languages denied, religions made illegal and cultural traditions brutally stripped.
We have seen the rise in suicide among youth who have felt culturally disconnected. What does the future hold for all youth with this recent and catastrophic loss of so many of our elders and other walking ancestors through the pandemic?
Age futurism requires urgent exploration as a concept and a design practice; our futures depend upon it.
Norma D. Thomas, DSW, LCSW, ACSW, is a retired full professor from California University of Pennsylvania, Department of Social Work, and teaches part-time for Widener University, Center for Social Work Education, in Chester, Pa. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Raina León, PhD, MFA, is a full professor in the Department of Teacher Education at St. Mary's College, in Moraga, Calif. She may be contacted at Raina.email@example.com.