SAN FRANCISCO — I HEARD about the new building for months before I saw it. Part of a leading medical center, its green architecture and design were getting a lot of attention, as was its integration of top-notch modern medicine with health and wellness spaces inspired by cultures from around the world. My father’s doctor had moved there, and driving to his appointment we looked forward to experiencing the cutting-edge new building firsthand.
Outside, I unloaded the walker and led my 82-year-old father through the sliding glass doors. Inside, there was a single bench made of recycled materials. I noticed it didn’t have the arm supports that a frail elderly person requires to safely sit down and get back up. It was a long trek to the right clinic and I was double-parked outside. Helping my father onto the bench, I said, “Wait here,” and hoped he would remember to do so long enough for me to park and return.
He nodded. We were used to this. It happened almost everywhere we went: at restaurants, the bank, the airport, department stores. Many of these places — our historic city hall, with its wide steps and renovated dome, the futuristic movie theater and the new clinic — were gorgeous.
The problem was that not one of them was set up to facilitate access by someone like my father.
That may have been intentional. A few years earlier, I’d heard about a new community center where the older adult program was positioned so attendees entered via a nondescript side entrance in order not to “scare off” the younger people the center hoped to attract.
Such approaches once may have made sense from a business perspective, but current demographic realities are creating financial and practical reasons to build more homes, businesses, health care facilities and public buildings that are well suited to older people’s needs.
The Americans With Disabilities Act’s guidelines help,but they do not ensure access or safety for this unique and rapidly growing population. Many buildings are A.D.A.-compliant and still difficult to navigate for older adults who have one or more physical, sensory or cognitive challenges, and especially for the frail elderly who have many.