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By 2050, the global population over the age of 60 will top two billion, and for the first time in history, outnumber the generation under the age of 15. The statistics are spurring on leading think tanks, architects and technology brands – including Aging 2.0, HWKN and Frog – to improve life for seniors.

For decades, Matthias Hollwich has been interested in what design can do for an aging population, but when he visited nursing homes in California he was gripped by the need for action. “They were horrific,” recalls the co-founder of New York architecture firm HWKN. “There were places with five residents in one room, separated only by curtains. The hallways smelled, and there was no light. I was startled by the lack of dignity.”

It was also far different from Hollwich’s own experience growing up in Munich, Germany, where his ailing grandmother lived with the family until she passed away in the bedroom next to his. “I was the last one to talk to her. It was painful but also beautiful, because our family was with her until the last second,” he says. “At the very end, she was shaking my hand and saying, ‘This is it. I wish you a wonderful life.’ ”

Now Hollwich is a leader among a group of designers, architects and entrepreneurs who are reimagining how society can better serve the needs of an aging population and help them to maintain their independence. The increased attention on this demographic, largely ignored by design- and technology-focused companies until recently, comes at an opportune time. Globally, the United Nations estimates that the number of people aged 60 and over will more than double, from 841 million in 2013 to over two billion by 2050, representing 21.1 percent of the world’s population. Meanwhile, residents of developed countries are living longer and retiring later – expanding the market of savvy, affluent consumers seeking products and services to suit their needs and tastes.

Back in 2009, Hollwich proposed an LGBT-friendly retirement community named BOOM, in Palm Springs, California. It encouraged social interaction and wellness, grounded by a range of architecturally ambitious buildings by J. Mayer H., Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Lot-Ek, among ­others. When that project stalled, he realized that perhaps it was too much, too soon, and he decided to go back to the basics. He’s now at work on New Aging: Live Smarter Now to Live Better Forever, a handbook developed with editor Jennifer Krichels and Bruce Mau Design and due out next spring from Penguin Books. It details 90 action points individuals can take to prepare for growing old, while it promotes societal shifts through the collective power of many.

“The most important thing was to mobilize people and make aging issues solvable,” says Hollwich, a 44-year-old who counts himself as an old person. “Micro-changes at all levels will have much more impact than one big planner ever could.” Hundreds of books deal with retirement finances, but few address lifestyle and design. New Aging grows out of existing academic research, he says, but simplifies it. “It invites people to adjust parts of their lives earlier, so they can live better as they age.”

At the top of his list is the edict to “love aging” – a mental shift to view aging as an enriching experience rather than something to be feared or denied. The book recommends building a robust support network, from person to person, in one’s community; and never retiring completely from work so as to remain active, stimulated and socially engaged.

He also encourages homeowners to take a close look at the services and mobility options in their surrounding community, and to advocate for adjustments decades before they run into trouble. “When you’re in your 40s, you can work for 20 years on your governmental action group to get an extra subway entrance, if you’ll need one,” he says. At home, seniors can add better lighting and handrails for safety; and connect heating, cooling, entertainment and security cameras to smart phone apps for ease of use.

Hollwich also makes the case for living in dense cities. Metropolises like New York, he argues, offer the most comprehensive range of direct-to-your-door services, from meal delivery to transportation. Technology is now a great urban facilitator: apps such as Uber make it easy to hire cars; companies like Seamless provide access to deliveries from thousands of restaurants; and companies like Wink and Nest specialize in whole-home automation.

Outside the pages of Hollwich’s book, similar changes are happening. Aging2.0, an organization with a global network that has grown to more than 10,000 members since its launch three years ago, is fostering the development of products and services for older people with cutting-edge technology, from robotics to smart-home devices to GPS-enabled activity monitors. It hosts an annual global innovation summit and the AgeTech Expo, both in San Francisco, and manages an accelerator program for start-ups.

“We’re taking some of the best ideas from Silicon Valley and matching them up with the needs of an aging society,” says co-founder Stephen Johnston. “There’s also a shift in design ethos.” Products for older people used to be big, beige and boring. “Smart companies now recognize that older people don’t want health issues to define them,” Johnston says. “They’re interested in stylish products and services, just like the rest of us.”

Among the 31 start-ups involved in Aging2.0’s accelerator program this year is Sabi, which makes attractive, functional pill bottles designed by Yves Béhar’s Fuseproject, and simple bathroom accessories by Barber & Osgerby’s Map Project Office (image below); Sabi also acquired Omhu, a maker of designer walking canes.

Another start-up, Lively offers, a watch that integrates an activity monitor, a medication reminder and a help button, along with motion-sensing monitors that attach to pillboxes and refrigerator doors, to alert family members if a drop in activity occurs. And then there is Gociety, which proposes a simplified smart phone interface for people with memory problems; it will provide directions home and alert a caregiver if the user leaves a predetermined area.

Some of the most admired innovation firms, including Frog, are also bringing their experi­ence to bear on the issue. “It started as a passion area for Frog, not a client request,” says Lindsey Mosby, the American firm’s health care practice lead. “A group of us were going through this with our families, and we realized how little there was in the way of good products and services.”

After visiting a cross-section of elders and their caregivers, the firm identified a set of key needs. “We heard people say, ‘Help me stay me – I’m worried about losing my sense of self,’ ” says Mosby. “Anything we can do to help people retain their sense of purpose and autonomy is a good thing,” because it reduces the guilt parents experience when they have to rely on their children.

In 2014, Frog worked with AARP in the U.S. to develop an innovation action map for companies looking to develop products for seniors and their care­givers. Simultaneously, the firm began to conceive a range of sensor-based, data-driven concepts for tracking biometrics and activity at home, which it continues to tweak while seeking commercial partners. When these are paired with the right suite of services, such as on-call doctors, Mosby envisions a future in which many of us will skip the traditional seniors’ home and grow old with friends and family in smart, connected and responsive environments of our own making. “If you think about companies like Nest, it’s about tweaking the technologies we already have,” she says. “It’s certainly not rocket science. It’s just a matter of doing it.”

Although Hollwich’s BOOM community floundered in North America, examples of forward-thinking retirement homes are already taking shape in Europe. In Portugal, for example, Guedes Cruz Architects designed the Social Complex in Alcabideche with 52 stand-alone modern-living units connected by footpaths, shared terraces, and pools that aim to reflect the Mediterranean way of life. With translucent roof structures, the apartments glow white like lanterns at night, providing outdoor illumination; when a resident triggers an urgent call for help, his or her unit glows red.

In France, architecture firm Naud & Poux Architectes has designed numerous uplifting retirement homes, including EHPAD Paul Brousse, completed last year in a suburb of Paris. Resembling a miniature village, the design weaves together residences and service areas across a site that has been deliberately opened up to the broader community, while operable privacy louvres provide views out to interior gardens.

Architecture firm Spark, meanwhile, has envisioned a whole new typology with the Home Farm concept in Singapore (rendering below). The project integrates a retirement home into a vertical farm where tenants can stay active and be financially secure by selling produce at market.

These are just some of the earliest bright spots in a world filled with disappointing institutions, products and services for older people, which is why design professionals are joining the call to action. “Aging will affect all of us, yet it has been underserved by architectural intelligence,” says Hollwich. “There is more urgency now than ever. This is our chance to make a big difference for everyone.”

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