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What Happens After 40?

This architect says it's time to design for aging starting early.

Photo of Aaron Wong
11 20

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When Architect Matthias Hollwich was approaching 40, he wondered what the next 40 years of his life might look like. He looked into the architecture that serves older adults, places like retirement communities and assisted living facilities, and didn't like what he saw. But what if we changed our habits earlier in life so we could stay in the communities we already live in?
"Retirement communities sounded great when they were created, but now when you retire, you may live there for 30 or even 40 years," he says. "You play golf and bingo; [you're] not really part of the general society."
Hollwich, a visiting professor at University of Pennsylvania, discussed the idea with students and faculty. They created a conference on aging to talk about how adults could continue to engage with society as they got older. Maybe a nursing home could turn into a healthiness hub, or an informal volunteering app could provide support to older people

Even though Hollwich began by thinking about architecture, he realized that people need to create a social structure that supports them, too.
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Why do you think it's important for people to start thinking about aging while they're still young?
Statistics show that older people move three times in the last three years of their life. They move from a place where they may want to live, like in Florida. They move closer to family when the first big issues appear within the health and social context. They lose all their social contacts because they're moving and changing their environment. [Then] maybe they break a leg. Now they don't have proximity to friends who can help them, so they need to move into an assisted living facility or nursing home.
We need to make sure that we nurture the social surrounding around us so we have friends and a safety net. This comes through personal contact.
We also have to look at our houses, where we live, and make sure that these buildings don't become traps. It's just too late to renovate your bathroom when you have a physical deficit.
What kinds of social adjustments do you think people should make in their community? 
It's really about re-engaging with our community around us and creating strategic alliances between people. Think about it. What can be done better within communities, within retail or service offerings that allow us to live our whole lives in more rural areas? That needs awareness, planning, and the fearlessness of addressing aging to make adjustments.
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In a high-rise building, most people never talk to their neighbors. As soon as you do, [you can] share some of your stories or responsibilities. You help them go shopping, or maybe one of your neighbors cooks for you one day. For us as architects, it's really important that we design apartment buildings entirely different than we do today; that we provide spaces that create social glue between people — not in a forced way but in a much more playful way.
What kind of spaces bring people together?
When you think about a hallway, it's used to go from your elevator to your apartment. But if you widen it up and create some seating areas or a shared kitchen, you might create a connection. Maybe someone comes by late in the evening and you're sitting there reading a book and they say "Hi. Oh, what are you reading?" You have this conversation and you start to make friends. These things are social offerings in a building, almost like a front porch. You sit there and you can wave to your neighbor and make contact. That creates familiarity and a social bond.
Do you have a favorite point in this book?
The chapter "Never Retire" is something that sounds to most people as kind of horrible. Most people look forward to retirement, but it's a big mistake. It's important that you have a meaningful contribution to society. Of course it doesn't have to be a 9 to 5 job. It could just be something you do once a week or for a few hours here and there. There's a whole boomer population that is starting up businesses after official retirement.
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Where do you see yourself at 80 or 90?
I see myself creating a strategic alliance with some of my friends. We've already started to talk about it. We want to live in close proximity or even in the same building. And it will be in a building that is entirely diverse in terms of ages, because the worst thing is when you get older, society just provides buildings for "old people." It's not healthy. It's important that when we get older you're mixed with all generations. That's a part of the vitality that helps in life.
People should look at the aging process as starting up a business. It would be helpful for people to pick a board of directors for your own life. Get four to five people in a room that you really trust and tell them what you plan to do in different stages of getting older. Let them be your steering committee and your sounding board so you can do the right things in terms of navigating your life.
I really believe it's important that we have to start sharing our thoughts and plans with each other. Everyone has these thoughts, but everyone keeps it very private. As a community you're much stronger and we can help each other.
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What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

What part does community and location play in nearing retirement, retirement, group homes, and hospices? Can we redesign community and location for these stages?


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Photo of Rohena

It does sound like such a good idea to be sensible and prepared and you raise lots of excellent areas of future conversation. I'm just not sure if the level of planning described would be easy for everyone. Firstly, I think there are the planners of the world and the spontaneous types. Often it seems that the latter could be described more as having a 'creative' mindset which is very different to the linear thinkers. Such pre-planning also involves a certain financial investment which may be feasible for some, but not all. It depends on our stage of life, previous decisions made, and our reactions or responses to the situation/s we find ourselves in. We may have the best plan but the sudden death of a partner, or serious sickness, disability, being cheated on, dumped, divorced, losing a limb, escaping from domestic violence, stillbirth or death of a child, the inability to have children, the GFC or stock market crash, being retrenched and unable to find work, suddenly being offered work in a different country....there are so many things that can "happen" in life that stop or pause our plans. I guess my question is what do we do when confronted with such situations? What if the dream of our over-40 home/unit/apartment is impossible? What if we can't afford the same block or even area as our friends? I understand the gamut of possible responses to these questions btw, and please be assured I ask them genuinely. What alternatives are there, if...? Or, when...? I'm sure there will be some who will plan and work towards their schedule and it will all pan out for them. I also love the idea of architects planning communal spaces in preparation, regardless of whether we are able to move near friends or not. But do we need a contingency plan for our contingency plan?! Or at the end of the day is it healthy to acknowledge that we can't all plan for all situations, and be prepared to still be happy and ok with Plan C or D...(E?) our twilight (or midnight!) years? ��

Photo of Paddy

Starting early, as in many life tasks is a great recommendation. The business framework to think about it, can be easy to follow for those in the field.
i have read of social housing in Sweden, designed to accommodate mixed age groups of singles!

Photo of Jessica Hanserd

I love this idea of approaching it like a business plan.  Coincidentally, that is sort of in line with what I've found myself doing this year.  Although, I hadn't previously thought about it this way.  I also appreciate the considerations around space planning.  Wonderfult thoughts to continue...

Photo of OpenIDEO

Congrats on this being today's Featured Contribution!

Photo of Helen

Absolutely love!  Yes!  I would love to see a residential facility for caregivers and their care recipients to live in community with other caregivers and care recipients. I am a caregiver to an elderly parent, my mom ~ Grace. My mom is 84 years old, and suffers from spinal stenosis, congestive heart failure, rheumatoid arthritis, and very limited mobility. 
There is so much creative potential in engaging design in reimagining the many stages leading up to the end-of-life.

Photo of Shane

Plus one! There is so much potential in exploring the relationship between communities and spaces. So far in this challenge, conversations have been focused on intimate end-of-life experiences between patients and their loved ones. Aaron's post is a great nudge for us to think about this challenge at the scale of entire communities — similar to the provocations that Maryalice introduced earlier in  Why Can't Every Nation Have a Dignified 'Dementia Village' like the Netherlands? 

Photo of Helen

Hi Shane!
Thank you,  I just finished watching the video.   It touched me so deeply and I became so emotional!  Yes, this is exactly what I envision for caregivers and their care recipients to live in community with others caregivers and their care recipients.   As my mom's health continues to decline, I fear placing her in a nursing home ~ a caregiver community village is my dream design concept.  I so believe that this design concept is so achievable.   Sorry, if I'm not articulating my thoughts clearly ~ I'm typing with tears streaming down my cheeks.   This is so personal to me. 

My  contribution to the challenge, The Death Oasis, centres around the 'choice' of where, when and how to die, when diagnosed with a terminal illness.  Designing a 'death hotel' modelled after the 'patient hotels' in various Scandinavian countries.  

Oh, how I would love to see a caregiver community village ~ caregivers supporting caregivers as they care for their respective care recipients! 

Photo of Aaron

Yes, Helen, I loved your The Death Oasis  Happy to see you so passionate (:
Speaking of choice, I think a lot of us would like to stay with our loved ones, but additionally, let's not forget about our friends... I really like Death Over Dinner  because you get to start to talk to your friends and loved ones about death in a communal way. Could these communal dinners lead to a regular tradition? I think the strongest part of these community oriented events is that they draw a diverse range of people, and that's what the architect suggests. Older people shouldn't necessarily be stuck in a home filled with other old people. They should meet new people, make new friends, hear new ideas, do new things, and they should build these communities, habits, and traditions starting early!

Photo of Helen

Aaron 100% agree! Love how you articulated this!   

Photo of Shane

Helen, I love your Death Oasis piece! You're a beautiful writer. We've seen many community members express the desire for designing the setting that they'll one day spend the end of their days in. The act of writing and envisioning about this 'place' (like how you have) is a powerful way of taking that first step.
I'm glad resonated with the community village post. Let's hope to see how more of our OpenIDEO community will build on the piece and yours as we move closer to the Ideas phase!

Photo of Helen

Thank you Shane, so very kind of you.  I wish I had more time to devote to this creative endeavour.  I work full time and also care for my mom, unfortunately, I don't have a lot of spare time.   I would like to offer my best wishes to you and the entire  team and creative community.   I will be following this creative design endeavour very closely.  

Oprah quote : "be a force for good".    I truly admire this creative endeavour.