Yesterday I took my mother to inspect a community living centre for seniors. This one was very different from others as it was guided by the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, who is also the guiding force behind the Waldorf Schools movement. Steiner is known for a lot of different ideas regarding education, medicine, and even farming and architecture. Some of his ideas might come across as a little loopy, but many of them are interesting and productive. It’s one of those philosophical situations where you have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
In this case the Seniors Centre was designed around the principle of dignified and productive ageing. The site was in a natural setting, actually adjacent to a Waldorf school. The building was designed with seniors in mind, with several common areas including a dining room in which you could avail yourself of the optional meal plan (which served biodynamically grown organic food). Artistic and physical classes for self improvement were offered to engage residents in activities, new interests and to promote participation in the community.
Regardless of the details, which may or may not result in my mother actually going to this place, I found the whole idea really inspiring. The concept of community involvement and self improvement through participation was front and centre. The proximity of the Waldorf school provided opportunity for inter generational cooperation. I’ve long felt that locating seniors homes beside schools would provide interesting opportunities for mutual benefits. The idea that seniors need to have the chance for ongoing education and self development is an important one.
A dynamic community like this is an interesting model for all of us. Often we find ourselves on a residential street or in an apartment building, not knowing the neighbors two or three doors down. I lived for an apartment building for five years and never got to know another person, seldom even seeing them (except when I was looking out for the people who were sealing my delivered newspaper). Few get involved in the community in volunteer or advocacy roles. The community is just a geographical location, not a social organism. It is not designed in a way to promote community participation or identity.
I remember when my parents owned a home in Florida. This was a community that was largely, but not entirely, retirees. There was a single entrance to the site and the hundred or so homes were arranged around a central community centre building. Occasional social events were held that brought the community together and promoted friendships. They know dozens of other residents, some becoming better friendships than others. Add to this community projects and self help workshops and you have the atmosphere at the community living centre that we visited. A manageable small, geographically defined community with activities that are engaging.
I wonder sometimes if, as a former teacher, I am seeking a school like community because what I’m describing is very much like a high school. Then again, when do we ever have as much of a sense of community as when we are in a school situation? When do we know more people, and engage in more activities with them? When do we ever participate in or support more clubs or athletic pursuits? Perhaps that model for social engagement and self development should serve as a guide for the kinds of communities we design for adults, not to mention seniors. With seniors, though, this becomes even more relevant as the elderly have more leisure time, separation from old friends, deceased spouses and many other unique issues which can either be seen as “declining years” or as a new opportunity.