Let’s talk about our generations.

We need to talk about language. So, let’s talk about our generations.

I’m an architect not a linguistic expert, but as an architect I was taught to recognise how signs and symbols gain cultural meanings, with important implications for how we make sense of the world. Human beings are social animals, and our psychology is affected by our physical and social environment. In my practice, we have been exploring this through grant-funded research projects into the architecture of health and wellbeing. In our most recent project, Rethinking Intergenerational Housing we realised the same applies to the environment we construct out of language. In analysing intergenerational housing schemes around the world, we noticed that the labelling of them as ‘intergenerational’ in some cases seemed to have a strange effect of reinforcing perceived differences between ages. Whilst many such schemes demonstrate positive benefits for those involved, it became increasingly clear that their founding concept of creating intentional interaction between people from different age groups can sometimes have unintended consequences. Why do some presume that older people are mainly in need of help, whilst younger people are mainly there to provide that help? Why are older people presumed to always have great wisdom to share, whilst young people need to receive it? Intergenerational housing generally refers to projects that connect people who are not related to one another, so why use the term generational at all? The terms we use to identify broad groups within society such as Generation X, Z etc. may be useful in analysing trends, but they do not reflect individual experience of either age or ageing and if we mistakenly think they do then are we inadvertently prejudicing our views about people? On the other hand, the intention of intergenerational housing is to create environments for positive relationships between and amongst people of all ages. If properly supported, this does provide clear benefits for everyone. It’s not that the term intergenerational is somehow wrong, it’s more that all such terms are a shorthand for bigger ideas that sometimes get lost in their wider usage.

Let’s talk about our generations. Our language has shifted in part recognition of this phenomenon – not so long ago it was normal to talk about ‘old people’. Gradually this has softened to ‘elderly’, but for some this still comes with the implications that if they are older, then they must also have characteristics such as ‘frail’ and ‘isolated’. This is a mistake to assume without thinking through what it means to be labelled in this way, rather than by other characteristics which of course vary greatly regardless of age and none of which actually define us. We’re all ageing. This is not to say we shouldn’t talk about ageing – in fact we should talk about it more, but as Dr. Hannah McDowall says in her piece, we should talk about it properly.

In our recent work with Ealing Council, we have developed an Older Adults Accommodation Strategy – a title that was originally meant to clarify that the focus is on specialist housing – but it became clear in conducting the work that the best way to provide supported housing is to design as adaptably and flexibly for the widest range of people as possible, including for people of all ages, mental and physical abilities. This led to challenging discussions about people’s needs and opportunities and linked to the development of a social impact framework that is helping to make the case for this broader understanding of supported housing, in turn improving its design. Questioning our assumptions of the words ‘specialist’, ‘supported’ and even ‘housing’ was crucial to this innovative approach.

More widely though, society is becoming more segregated by age with hugely detrimental effects for everyone. People living alone are twice as likely to develop dementia as they age and children in single parent families who don’t have wider social networks of support have equally significant mental health impacts. Labelling people as ‘older’ and ‘younger’ might help to identify these issues statistically, but in targeting responses to these trends might we be making them worse?

My view is that what older people need most is to stop being labelled with implications such as ‘frail’ or ‘isolated’. Instead, we should be asking the question of what an environment that is supportive of ageing looks like. That is a question that is equally relevant to everyone, regardless of age. The answer probably includes many of the measures we currently employ but it should not start from the point of targeting them at older people, but instead understanding them as part of a much more ambitious goal of inclusivity and integration, to reverse the trend of segregation. ‘Inclusive’ is an important word that remains under-examined in my view – what would genuinely inclusive housing look like? I think that remains a challenging question.

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