Rant: Riding into the Future

I’m driving a new Mercedes SUV. Maybe it’s wrong to spend so much on a luxury truck that’s three leather seats wide and branded by medallions the size of Christmas wreaths. But it feels good to be bad.

This model says I’m unafraid to advertise my desire to live large. My ride tells a full, rich story of hubris and denial.

The story, however, isn’t true.

The Mercedes is a loaner, provided by my body shop because a high school kid backed her Saab into my Subaru at a gas station in New Jersey, where I was visiting my car-less mother.

My mother lives in a state-of-the-art "senior living community"—let’s call it the SC—where she’s been having mobility issues of a different kind. She’s been banned from the main dining room for using her new wheelchair.

My mother’s vehicle tells a story too, but it’s one that nobody wants to hear: The older you get, the more likely you are to need ugly contraptions to move you around. Not just one vehicle, but a range of homely transfer devices. These "mobility aids" include everything from beefy electric scooters and wheelchairs to spindly walkers and canes. They occupy a strange place among products. They’re hated by those who need them most and feared by those who don’t need them at all.

So what’s a product designer to do? Get Mercedes to brand a line of vehicles that takes pride of ownership indoors? Create a whole new world of sexy PV-powered, LED-lit composite sculptures on wheels?

Sure, that’s what I thought, too, until I started hanging out at the SC. After helping my mom test-drive a changing array of equipment, I learned a grim irony invisible to visitors. Nowhere is the stigma of mobility aids more acute than in an idyllic village of older people.

Outside the SC, you are what you drive; the more vehicles you have, the meatier they are, the better. Inside the SC, the fewer vehicles you have, and the less engineered they look, the prouder you are. In the land of the elderly, hands-free walking is the most enviable way to go.

Unfortunately, this kind of full-service senior community requires an architectural labyrinth. On-site, there’s a nursing home, a rehab hospital, and apartments connected by a long corridor with amenities. The places are called skilled nursing, assisted-living, and independent living, respectively.

On paper the idea looks great. Say you buy an apartment unit in the independent-living wing. If you break your hip, you transfer to skilled nursing, recuperate in assisted living, then return to your apartment without ever having to leave "home," i.e., the community. But what if you don’t "regain your independence" and must transfer to a wing with residents just as hampered as you? In the move, you lose not only your original unit (partially reimbursed), but also your welcome among the ambulatory set.

There are two discouraging forces at work here. One is architectural, the other social. The SC is styled to look like a suburban apartment complex. But the corridors can barely fit two lanes of vehicles. Sharp, blind corners invite scooter collisions. Vehicles are banned in the main dining room, but corridor parking is so tight the SC had to create a free valet parking service. And living units have no parking or storage areas for mobility aids, indoors or out.

Socially, a hierarchy has emerged shaped not only by the architecture, but also by a new culture of aging that treats fragility as if it’s a contagious disease. Each mobility device prefigures a more advanced model, which in turn advertises a more advanced state of deterioration. Anyone who needs mechanical help now will probably need a whole slew of devices in the near future. A single-pronged cane segues to a three-pronged cane. The three-pronger leads to a walker. A walker is one step from a wheelchair.

And a wheelchair leads to my mother being removed from her last favorite place: a "family" of six friends who dine together every night at their much-coveted table in the far corner of the main dining room in independent living, where she was living only weeks before a setback.

The gossip goes like this: A resident complained that my mother took up too much time, and too much staff, crossing the carpet—cane in hand, waiter on each arm—from her new wheelchair (valet-parked at the doorway by house rule) to the table. In response, the management recommended that my mother move, with pals, to a table near the door. Her friends declined.

Now the ban is moot. A stroke recently paralyzed my mother’s right side, sending her to an acute rehab hospital clear across town. Her friends call to see how she’s doing. But she can’t pick up the phone.

In the future, I hope we can find a better way to get old together, and eat dinner together, no matter what we drive. Walkers or scooters, Subarus or Mercedes. It’s all the same trip.

Barbara Flanagan is a contributing editor at I.D.

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