When it comes to what today's self-indulgent 65-year old wants in an active adult community, a bumper sticker says it best: "I'm squandering my children's inheritance."

Yesterday's senior citizen was driven by cost. They were born into the Great Depression and experienced the hardship that dominated that period. They were witnesses to World War II, likely with siblings, parents, or friends lost to the conflict. The ultimate educational priority for most was achieving a high school education.

But today's 65-year-olds remember the end of the war and the great optimism of the '50s with its aggressive economic growth fueled by a focus on the future. They laid witness to the explosion of inventions that increased the availability of free time and made home entertainment a centerpiece of family values. Higher education was not an elusive idea. And they resist the label "senior citizen," preferring to refer to themselves as active adults.

These social forces have fashioned different consumer behaviors among the various senior segments. The older group, 75 and above, can be characterized by a priority of price over convenience. The younger group, which is the bigger marketing opportunity today (see "Aging Trends"), will make choices less dependent on price but not without responsible limits. Nowhere is this basic difference more apparent than in their housing choices.

Today's 65-year-old's view of housing remains more a reflection of what they have accomplished and less an investment for children to redeem after they have gone. The group seems focused on technology, time-saving features, casual living, and the fashionable execution of housing design.

This group seeks activities that offer more social benefits, leisure pursuits that involve interaction, activities focused more on fitness than health maintenance, and education as a lifetime activity.

These fundamental differences have altered the shape and expectations of the emerging active adults, who are coming into the age of retirement with vigor, intellectual interests, and healthy living intentions as allies.

Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard UniversityPlan for Social Interaction.
Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard UniversityPlan for Social Interaction.

Meeting the needs of today's active adult requires a fresh approach to community design. Social benefit should be attached to the utility of every space. Here are nine ideas to enliven your next project:

1. Focus on common space. This begins with an emphasis on outdoor living with private outdoor spaces, gardens, and smaller community social gathering areas near individual dwellings.

2. Advance the impression of neighborhood. This can be done through the arrangement and clustering of dwellings where a select number of units share courtyards, terraces, or gardens as semi-private activity places. When weather conditions limit such considerations, community social needs can be met with day rooms, conservatories, and indoor activity spaces.

3. Turn mail rooms into post offices. Bring them out of dark and congested alcoves or transient corridors. Place them in light-bathed spaces where occupants can see and be seen. Introduce seating in small groups of four to six, some grouped around tables. Offer residents comfortable space to sort mail, read or respond, and carry on individual conversations with others making the mail ritual. Provide a bulletin board (perhaps on a video monitor) where upcoming events are publicized and community activity schedules are displayed.

4. Couple central laundry rooms with activity spaces. This gives seniors an opportunity to do something else while they wait for their clothes to dry. Place laundry rooms near pools or lounging areas. Introduce natural light. Including a TV and beverage vending encourages waiting with others.

5. Animate pools with shaded structures. These should be sized and furnished to promote small group interaction. Shaded pavilions extend social time at the water's edge and invite those more sensitive to direct sun to join the group. Sized to accommodate eight to 10 people, they become a social catalyst when shared by individuals who have yet to become acquainted.