Changing Aging Interview: Dr. Andrew Scharlach, University of California at Berkeley, Center for the Advanced Study of Aging Services

Changing Aging recently sat down with Dr. Andrew E. Scharlach, of the University of California at Berkeley, where he holds the Eugene and Rose Kleiner Chair in Aging. He also serves as Director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Aging Services, which conducts research designed to inform development of innovative and effective services for older adults. It recently sponsored an international web-based conference on ‘Creating Aging-Friendly Communities’ and technical support through an ongoing ‘Community of Practice’ is available here.Dr. Scharlach, who also serves as a gubernatorial appointee on the California Commission on Aging, has published extensively on the needs of older adults and their families, particularly with regard to long-term care services, work and family responsibilities, bereavement, and gerontological social work education. In addition to more than 40 articles, he is the author of Elder Care and the Work Force: Blueprint for Action (with B. Lowe and E. Schneider; Lexington Books, Controversial Issues in Aging (with L. Kaye; Allyn & Bacon), and Families and Work: New Directions in the Twenty-First Century (with K. Fredriksen-Goldsen; Oxford University Press).

What are the biggest changes that you think we’ll see in U.S. community planning as it relates to preparing for vital aging communities?

We’re going to and already are seeing older consumers more involved in the planning process in communities. Aging friendly initiatives and products will become the norm. You’re going to see much more universal design in housing development. You’re also going to see products that look good, have good design and that are functional. Michael Graves, the renowned designer, is creating good and functional design of shower heads, tea pots and other products used in everyday life. That will become more widespread in architecture and other community infrastructure.

How do you see senior housing changing for the age wave?

I see several different areas for change. I think you’re going to see more housing that’s built for a lifetime, e.g., universal design. That’s going to lead to communities that are more intergenerational. I think senior housing providers also will move more outside of their traditional bricks and mortar, where they help create virtual senior communities by delivering services to people in their home. Technology is going to play a much greater role. We’re already starting to see that with sensor monitoring in people’s homes. That technology is going to have to increase because we’re going have many fewer caregivers. I also think there will be more peer support and less reliance on family care. Communities that are known as “good places to grow old” are where people will want to live.

What are examples of U.S. communities you’ve seen that “get it” when it comes creating aging-friendly communities?

There are a number of communities that are seeing aging as an asset and working to be livable for a lifetime in different ways. Atlanta has a large initiative called Aging Atlanta, which is part of their regional planning and is focused on making Atlanta a place people want to stay. The University of Indiana has a Center for Aging and Community under the direction of Dr. Philip Stafford that has been doing a lot of work in this area to help communities become lifespan communities. Fremont, California, is another one that is doing community-wide work to help people live and stay in Fremont to the end of life.

By 2050, the U.S. will have more than a half million centenarians. Assuming a shortage in professional caregivers, how do you see family care changing for this unprecedented demographic shift?

Technology is going to have to play a critical role. Robotics are going to take on some roles that were traditionally done by humans. You’re also going to have nurses checking in with patients by video or by computer via sensors. We’re going to have to think very locally. Neighbors are going to have to look out for neighbors. Community design also is essential for this. Buildings have to be easy to live in and easy to navigate for people who have disabilities. You can start to see how the unprecedented age wave in the U.S. will impact just about every area of our society. Communities can’t plan in silos. There are a lot of interconnections and intergenerational ties to this.

What do you want old age to look like for you?

I want to be socially connected. I’d like minimal physical impediments, and I want to be able to maintain meaningful activities and relationships without undue pressure to maintain the functional levels of earlier years. There’s this image in America that to age well, you have to be jumping out of airplanes or running marathons. Not true. Healthy, successful aging is about enjoying life €“ not speed or intensity.