Generational integration: Growing together

Brent Willett | President & CEO, Iowa Health Care Association

The Idea: In the most age-segregated era in human history, Des Moines can reap the socioeconomic rewards of age integration by focusing on two areas of enormous near-term potential: age-integrated housing and multigenerational day care programming.

For the better part of the last decade, Des Moines has been on the sort of enviable trajectory very few cities in America find themselves on: a metro that is attracting and retaining not just loads of young people, but throngs of the young and the old. From a downtown apartment and condominium boom that is the product of as many downsizing boomers as aspiring millennials to a Downtown Farmers’ Market bustling with as many children as grandparents, Des Moines holds the kind of promise to serve as a national paragon for generational integration in a period of extraordinary age stratification nationwide that few other cities do.

We are living in a period of unprecedented age segregation in America. If you were to drop someone out of a time machine from 100 years ago into an American city today, one of the things he or she would observe with astonishment is how siloed our generational experience has become.

Research from Richelle Winkler suggests that we are as age-segregated in America as we are race-segregated, and it all comes at tremendous social, political and economic cost. One study published in Aging & Society in 2004 suggested that just 6 percent of a sample of those over 60 had discussed “important matters” with a non-family member under 36. And the absence of any commonality of bond between generations contributes to worries about a “kids vs. canes” war over increasingly scarce public resources.

In coming years Des Moines can become a national leader in age integration and reap the socioeconomic rewards of a considered approach to the benefits of cohesion between generations. Two areas of focus possess enormous near-term potential: age-integrated housing and multigenerational day care programming.

Age-integrated housing:

Des Moines is a leader in the accelerating density of its housing options, a reflection of market demand that has been gaining steam since the urbanization trend began in the 1990s. Today, however, we can expect young renters and homeowners to mostly live proximate to mostly young renters and homeowners.

The same can be said of empty nesters and retirees who are increasingly moving to the city’s urban core. Targeted tax incentives and zoning considerations by city and county officials to encourage multigenerational housing development would help mitigate the downside risk presented by a current lack of data necessary for developers to proceed with such a project.

Success stories already exist. Consider, for example, what’s become of Judson Manor, a former hotel near Case Western University in Cleveland. Today it houses around 120 highly educated retirees with an average age of 79 — and around 10 young graduate students, thanks to an inspired artist-in-residence program. Judson Manor came into being in 2010 when the Cleveland Institute of Music began experimenting to find solutions to its student housing shortage.

Whether a greenfield development in a burgeoning downtown or a redevelopment project like the former AIB campus, age-integrated housing holds promise for Des Moines to once again separate itself from the crowd.

As the myriad examples of remarkable economic and housing development this city has seen in the last decade all suggest, first providing tinder for the fire through a set of incentives or policies is necessary and small down payment on future prosperity.

Multigenerational care settings:

As two of our most vulnerable generations ― children and the elderly ― are hurled toward increasingly stark age stratification in American communities, we are undergoing a “dangerous experiment,” Cornell University professor Karl Pillemer told the Huffington Post. “This is the most age-segregated society that’s ever been. Vast numbers of younger people are likely to live into their 90s without contact with older people. As a result, young people’s view of aging is highly unrealistic and absurd.”

One way to increase contact between generations has been picking up steam in pockets of the country: intergenerational day care, programs that feature adult care programs for seniors as well as child care programs in one center and combining activities for both generations throughout the day. One example is the St. Ann Center for Adult and Day Care in Milwaukee, which brings together people from 6 weeks to 100 years old.

The Des Moines metro, featuring two of the fastest growing cities in America in Ankeny and Waukee, is creating nationally prominent demand for senior and child care services, thanks to exploding population growth. Senior care and child care facilities follow population growth. However, without a catalyst, it seems likely that Des Moines will continue to be a metro that does not feature multigenerational day care programming.

Providers in both sectors ― senior care and child care ― are well organized and represented by groups that can and should come together in an alliance to advance a strategy to see multigenerational day care programming succeed in Central Iowa.

Knowing that facilities costs are a primary hurdle to implementing such programming, the alliance explored the establishment of a loan fund to lower borrowing costs for providers willing to retrofit or build new centers with the physical elements necessary to adequately care for both populations. Other strategies to explore include matchmaking and implementation consulting services for existing senior care and child care providers willing to explore an intergenerational model but without an idea of how to start or who to partner with.

Why Des Moines, and why bother? The Harvard Study of Adult Development ― a longitudinal study now running for more than 80 years ― shows that older generations who connect with younger people are three times as likely to be happy as those who don’t. And, of course, common experience and untold research shows that young people are far more likely to succeed if they have the support of caring adults. What more noble ― and pragmatic ― a goal for a city like ours than to strive toward greater metrics of happiness for its citizens?

Before 1900, Americans of all ages worked, lived and worshiped together in a largely agricultural economy. One-room schoolhouses educated students of all ages. But with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, Americans began reorganizing society in an endless bid for better productivity.

The advent of the home mortgage in the 1930s and its expansion in the 1970s allowed younger couples to purchase homes of their own and abandon the traditional three-generation households of the prior era. Collective education forced children into age-stratified institutional classroom settings, and workplaces moved older people out as retirement became widespread.

The result today is that every sector of American life ― from the way we work and recreate to the way we educate our children to the way we care for the old ― is organized into a series of lineal generational boxes that only march forward and do not touch one another. Des Moines can lead the way to break the cycle. >