Aging in the city
I can still chew!
A few days ago, I visited my dentist for a routine cleaning. The hygienist, a woman in her 40s, was new to me. She took the usual perfunctory health history, asked all the questions that dentists don’t really need to ask and then she asked how my teeth were performing.
“Are you still able to eat and drink ok?”
Hmm, I thought to myself, that word still. When was there evidence that I couldn’t eat? My teeth are fine. I told her this.
“Awww, well that’s the main thing, isn’t it? As long as you’re still able to enjoy your food.”
That vexed word still again, but now I had a sense of where she was going. I don’t think I’m particularly vain, but I’ve often been told that I look quite a bit younger than my chronological age, so it would be difficult to mistake me for a 90-year-old. Yet here I was being treated like a late senior whose fondest aspiration might be that I was still able to eke out some pleasure by gumming down my senior’s supper of meat loaf and mashed potatoes.
Before you conclude that this is just another old man’s rant against all the young whippersnappers, let me just say that that’s not where I’m going. What I want to talk about is how misperceptions of aging carry risks for how we design a world that works for all. This misperception raises the possibility of a dysfunctional disconnect between massive demographic shifts that are taking place across the world and the way that we are building our cities.
Massive demographic shifts in cities
The figure above, taken from a recent OECD policy brief, shows that, compared to population increases for the young, there is a precipitous increase in the numbers of elderly people both in OECD countries but also in the world at large, and that this trend is going to continue for at least the next fifty years. I haven’t drilled down to the detailed explanations of why this is happening, but it seems fairly obvious that the likely causes are increased life expectancies and declining birth rates. For cities, what this means is that, like it or not, we will need to find ways to adapt urban life to a population with somewhat different tastes, abilities, and needs.
Historically, the age-related trend in cities has been that young adults populate the dense cores of cities and then, as they pair bond and start families, they migrate to suburban areas that offer roomy single-family dwellings, backyards, safe streets, schools, playgrounds, and all of the amenities that parents find themselves willing to obtain by sacrificing the buzz of a tightly-wound, fast-moving urban scene filled with clubs, restaurants and other attractions of the downtown. At least this is the classic view of how things have worked and was largely true in post-WWII times. We raised families in the ‘burbs, grew old, died at a respectable age and then the value of the realty we worked a lifetime to own somehow passed on to the next generation.
But now times have changed. Longer lifespans mean that parents live for much longer after the nest empties out. And with this comes a desire for downsizing to housing that is suitable for the golden years (1). This might mean less maintenance, fewer rooms, smaller yards but also an escape from the stultifying boredom of a street that’s filled with nothing but a sea of cheaply made cookie-cutter tract houses. But the tiny studio apartments in the city that might be ideal for the young would not likely be satisfactory for the aging couple or singleton. Their needs, tastes and preferences will have shifted over the course of a lifetime of experience and of age-related changes in their minds and their behaviour. So, let’s talk about some of that. I’ll relate my own experiences as a relatively healthy sixty-something man to the psychological literature on the effects of aging.
(Copyright Queen's Printer for Ontario, photo source: Ontario Growth Secretariat, Ministry of Municipal Affair)
I grew up in the city of Toronto, a metropolis of about three million people (2). As an academic, I’ve moved around a lot but have lived now for over 30 years in a much smaller city with a single main street and endless sprawling car-centric suburbs. I always imagined that when my circumstances changed (empty nest, perhaps retirement) I would move back to Toronto to be closer to things that I loved – museums, galleries, interesting neighborhoods and all the rest of what that beautiful city has to offer. Yet over the last few years I’ve found that the frequency of my visits to the city has decreased. A part of that decline has had to do with practicalities. The drive to Toronto from where I live involves unbearable delays in heavy traffic and the “commuter” train that takes me there in an hour or so runs infrequently and is expensive compared to the drive, especially if I’m travelling with a group. But it’s not just the inconvenience of getting there that repels me. I find that the density and the thrum of activity that used to enliven me has now become slightly unpleasant.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. When I’m driving in the city, which I try to do as little as possible, there are certain situations where the information processing demands become so high that I find them unpleasantly daunting. Some circumstances generate something close to physical pain. Making a left turn across the direction of oncoming traffic while also tracking the movements of many pedestrians moving in different directions is a difficult perceptual task for anyone, but it has become more so for me over the past decade. The psychology and neuroscience involved in such real-world tasks has been studied intensively in both the young and the old. A part of what I’m trying to do at that street corner involves quickly disengaging attention from one location and then re-engaging my attention somewhere else. To some extent, one could also argue that what I’m trying to do is to attend to more than one thing at the same time – the movements of individual pedestrians and the oncoming traffic whose path I must cross. In most laboratory studies, these are aspects of attending to the world for which older people show some decline.
Here's another example: when I’m walking on city streets, I find it slightly more of a challenge to negotiate crowds. Tracking a path through a crowded field of humans requires a great deal of sophisticated perception. I need to track the trajectories of other walkers, anticipate what psychologists call “time to collision” and hopefully avoid them. In a crowded field, many micro-adjustments of posture and gait are needed to keep us all moving steadily towards our goals. Much of this is effortless and unconscious, but I find slightly less so as the years go by. I suspect that some of this difficulty stems from the impact of status-competition on the sidewalk. Taller walkers dominate shorter ones, men dominate women and, though evidence is very scanty, race probably plays a role in the transactions of sidewalk ballet as well. Though only a little attention has been paid to the effects of age on sidewalk war tactics, what is there suggests that age matters, and I don’t think that changing status battles account for all the difficulties in the sidewalk dance. I find myself slightly irritated by people who make sudden changes of direction, who insist on defying the general convention of walking on the right, and who cluster together to walk in groups. Like the difficulties I experience with complex multi-dimensional decision-making during driving, I think that the slightly increased annoyance and stress I experience during pedestrian decision-making has to do with diminished capacities for attention.
Taking a deep dive into everything we know about attention and aging would take far longer for you to read than you have time to give, so I’ll boil things down to the most important parts. The different cognitive capacities that we gather under the loose rubric of the word “attention” consist of a number of different things, including alerting (being ready to respond to an event), executive control (figuring out what is the relevant information to attend to) and orienting (bringing the focus of attention to a particular thing, location, or time). All of these different dimensions of attention are affected by aging, but some much more than others. Generally, older people are slower to alert to events and have some decrease in executive control, in some measure because they have more difficulty ignoring irrelevant information. Orienting is slightly more complicated. Researchers describe exogenous orienting, which is the kind of quick reflex response that you might make to a novel event (imagine sitting quietly reading and noticing a spider crawling up the wall beside you). But there is also endogenous orienting, which comes into play when we are asked to focus attention on something according to some kind of rule, which might stem from our understanding of the world. In laboratory experiments, endogenous orienting can be tested by providing participants with a kind of rule that they can use to help predict where a stimulus is going to appear (for example, if alerting prompt is red, look left. If it’s blue, look right). To a first approximation, older people have more difficulty with endogenous orienting than with exogenous orienting.
I’ve given you a lot of the tawdry details of how aging affects attention because I think it has implications for how older people deal with cities and also may have some clues as to how to build cities that work for all. Thinking back to the examples of my own experiences in cities, it’s easy to understand my unease at traffic intersections by considering that my task involves a great deal of executive control (deciding where to look next and when to look there). My stress in sidewalk ballet might be related to a slight decrease in my ability to process the symbolic cues in the movements of others that might help me to predict their next movement and so plan my own using endogenous orienting.
More generally for design principles, this might mean that we need to pay more attention to the competing informational designs of certain kinds of settings to help build more accommodating “elderscapes.” We can hardly require that the density of pedestrians on sidewalks be thinned or that roadways be entirely redesigned for older people, but it might be useful to consider ways that the amount of extraneous information at such information bottlenecks could be reduced. Clear sightlines, fewer noisy distractions and simple, effective signage could improve the legibility of a streetscape, thus offloading some of the complexities involved in our own executive decision-making into the environment. And though the slightly slowed abilities of older people might make the need for these measures more acute, one of the things that tantalizes me about this is that I think that all could benefit from these kinds of design considerations. Older people may be slightly slower to orient but younger people would benefit as well. Big cities tax the capacities of all minds. It’s just a little more difficult for the older among us. In a way, you could consider the plight of older adults in cities as a kind of canary in the coal mine for urban design.
I hear you. Too much.
I walk in my city every day. Most of the time, I seek out routes that keep me away from the flow of car traffic by sticking to urban trails and parks. When I do have to walk along the edge of a busy thoroughfare, I find it almost unbearable unless I use noise-cancelling earphones to mute the relentless blast of traffic noise. I know that my irritation with urban noise has increased since I was in my 50s and I also notice that when I walk with younger people, they seem to find the noise much less annoying than I do.
The science here is not overly complicated. The threadbare truism about older people is that we can’t hear very well. Notice young people interacting with the elderly and you’ll often see them lean in close to them and speak loudly or even yell. But truthfully, though there is an inevitable decline in hearing sensitivity with age, at least among those of us who live in noisy industrialized parts of the world, for most people that decline is modest. But if there’s even a modest decline, why do we oldies find noise more annoying? It has more to do with adaptation and filtering than with raw sensitivity. Younger auditory systems are very good at adapting to different levels of ambient noise. That’s why young people are able to carry on a conversation in a noisy bar while older people give up conversation and abandon themselves to the music.
In everyday behaviour in the city, this relative inability to adapt and filter means that being subjected to high levels of urban noise swamps the auditory system and makes clear thinking and decision-making much more difficult.
The lesson for design here is that inclusive urban environments must pay close attention to ambient sound levels. I know that such levels, especially for night-time periods are already regulated by bylaw, but in many cases those regulations are probably too permissive. And as with attention, urban noise affects everyone. Though we older people may find noise more unpleasant and distracting, its effect on younger auditory systems is cumulative. If it bothers an older person now, it’s causing damage to younger ears that will eventually catch up with them.
In search of lost time
When I was a young boy in elementary school, I remember the feeling of relief on the last day of school as I looked ahead at the prospect of a summer vacation that seemed to stretch off into infinity. The span of time between the end of June and the beginning of September seemed so huge that anything at all could be accomplished. And I think that feeling persists through at least young adulthood. I remember years as a young professor when I would make unimaginably ambitious to-do lists to occupy the time in the summer between my teaching terms. Now, things are different. It feels as though once our May long weekend in Canada ends, the end of summer is just around the corner. I once heard an older person exclaim that life seemed to have become nothing more than a rapid-fire sequence: Christmas-Easter-Thanksgiving with no rests in between. These are very commonplace reflections, but what do they have to do with aging in cities?
Time perception is an important aspect of city planning. Planners talk about Five Minute Cities, Fifteen Minute Cities, the 5-Minute Walk, and so on. The general idea behind these time demarcations is the aspiration to have all of one’s needs and wants within, ideally, a walkable span that takes a certain amount of time. For example, we know that people are much more likely to use public transit if the nearest stop is within a five-minute walk of where they live. Similar time considerations operate in other domains of urban life. We all know the difference between a 10-minute walk through a fascinating, dense, urban streetscape with many feasts for the eye and a walk of the same duration along the side of a four or six lane major roadway with wide setbacks and huge parking lots. One seems to fly by. The other takes forever. So, the temporal structure of a city is also a key to how it will be used by its residents.
To understand the impact of aging on time perception in cities, we do well to look at effects on shorter spans of time. It matters less if I think my summers now fly by than if I experience systematic changes in the length of time it seems to walk a city block. The psychology and neuroscience of time perception is a rich and complicated area of research with much nuance but, with respect to aging, certain things seem to be true. One finding is that, for older people, the same kinds of effects that we see at the long scale (years, months) may also occur at shorter time scales (seconds and minutes). In one study, younger and older participants were tested for their ability to accurately estimate time spans of either 8 or 21 seconds. As the figure below shows, both groups were able to estimate these time spans accurately at the beginning of the experiment, but as time went on and with repeated testing, there was a gradual shift in time perception for the older participants.
(taken from Turgeon M, Lustig C & Meck WH (2016), Cognitive aging and time perception: Roles of Bayesian optimization and degeneracy, Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, Figure 1).
Interpreting time perception findings is slightly tricky and, for me, it’s a bit like working with time zones—I often get things backwards. But, looking at the graph, what these findings mean is that for an older participant, when asked to estimate a 21 second time interval at the end of a long series of tasks, their estimates run long (about 25-26 seconds). In other words, for older participants, the internal clock gradually slows down with cognitive fatigue. Sequences of events seem to come more quickly. Translated to everyday experience, this should suggest that, for older people, the press of events in a typical walk down a city street should be harder and faster.
I’m not aware of any research that looks directly at this link, but as so much of our experience of urban life hinges on our perception of the flow of events as we move around, it’s hard to imagine that this one finding about time perception and age doesn’t have implications for city design. One of the reasons why pedestrians find walking in a streetscape built for cars so miserable is that such landscapes are designed to be experienced at a speed of about 50 km/hr, rather than the 4-5 km/hr of a typical pedestrian. What happens when the experience of time, rather than the density of a streetscape, changes by about 20% over the course of a lifetime? Much background work in empirical aesthetics suggests that we gravitate to novelty and complexity, but only a certain amount of it. If the preferred quantum of complexity remains the same over the lifespan but the rate at which we experience it in cities changes, this might matter. We should find out.
Summing it up
I began this post with a description of a trip to the dentist and my complaint that I felt as though I was being treated as a caricature of an old person who was crawling through life using a Zimmer frame, gratefully gumming my food and generally struggling against an imminent, ultimate demise that slowly stripped my senses and my power. As I’ve tried to convey with the few simple examples that I’ve described to you, there is a sense in which things change with age. Minds work differently, we attend in different ways and at different speeds. Hearing changes. So does vision. But gross misperception of what it means to age healthily and to consider older adults as frail, faltering shells of their former selves is likely to lead to bad planning, especially as the coming century looks set to provide the world with massive increases in the numbers of seniors. Indeed, any notions that we oldies should be shunted to the ‘burbs to live, perhaps in communal group homes with nurses and maids or at best in achingly boring residential warehouses of one kind or another should be banished. Compared with the modest declines in the senses and in movement that are almost inevitable in aging, our senior population presents an incredibly rich and potent resource for cities. Our needs, desires, and capacities should be considered realistically by attending to both the scientific evidence and the first-hand accounts from the stakeholders. Outdated, insulting stereotypes of the elderly serve nobody. (3)
(1) I’ll never forget that my father used to complain that what were commonly described as the “golden years” might be more aptly described as the “rusty years.” He might disagree with some of what I have to say here. And so it goes.
(2) Only 2 million when I lived there but still the biggest city in Canada
(3) If you’re a regular, you’ll notice that this post is a bit longer than what I usually write. And yet there is still so much more to say! I haven’t discussed the role of urban design in ameliorating loneliness, for example. My own views on this are curmudgeonly and contrarian (in keeping with my years perhaps….) and perhaps the subject for a future post.
What I’m eating
Still a bit boring on this front. I have begun to master the art of sourdough and have a nicely active starter whom I’ve named Quatermass after one of my father’s favourite TV science-fiction characters. But as everyone is doing sourdough these days, I won’t bore you with the images.
What I’m reading
I’m reading a book called Geopolitics of Emotion by Dominique Moisi, which seemed like a good follow-up to the Nervous States book by William Davies that I’d described to you earlier. The premise of the Moisi book is that it makes sense to carve up current geopolitical trends using an emotional palette consisting of hope, humiliation, and fear. One of the things that I’m finding most remarkable about this read is that, even though it’s a somewhat recent book (2010) much of it has been rendered slightly archaic by events of the past five years. Things are changing quickly and, in many ways, unpleasantly. Trying to keep my optimism and my serotonin levels up though.