The View From Here: Changing Perceptions - Looking Back at the World From 20, and Forward From 45

By Adena Schutzberg

I'm sure everyone has had the experience of returning to their hometown or elementary or even high school only to marvel at how much smaller everything seems. Once you reach the ripe old age of 20 or 25, the neighborhood, the regularly travelled routes, even the rooms and furniture, seem distorted in size. Two things struck me when I returned to my hometown during a college break back in 1985.

First, the high school room where I spent a full two years (taking chemistry as a sophomore, then taking it again, as AP chemistry as a senior) was tiny. The bench behind which Mr. Marks stood seemed much lower and shorter. There was no change in my stature; unlike many of my classmates, I've not gotten any taller since I was 16.

Second, the one-mile loop I knew so well (since I trained on it in my vain attempt to make the junior high basketball team) seemed so short! That I could explain. I'd become a better runner due to all the running I did in college as a rower. Still, it seemed eerie that my good friend Margaret's house, which was on that route, seemed so close to my house now! Again, it was in my head; the objective reality had not changed, but I had.

I've dealt with those changed perceptions for nearly 25 years now. And, I think about them often since I visit my old neighborhood regularly. The odd thing is that I'm now experiencing a second change in my perception of my world. Now, at middle age, I'm seeing the world through what I'd call "parent-colored" glasses. While in 1985 I noticed that my perception of the world had changed as I became an adult, I'm now finding my perception changing again. These days I look at the world through a senior's eyes. That view is far more disconcerting than the miniaturization of my childhood world two decades ago.

Before I detail my new view of the world, you need to know a bit about my parents. My mom was in a wheelchair for the last 10 years of her life. Dad, while reasonably healthy, can't run out onto a football field like Joe Paterno, who's the same age.

What do I see, having spent the last 20 years interacting with my parents, that I didn't see before? I see curbs. I see trash barrels blocking the sidewalk. I see uneven brick sidewalks. I see slippery leaves on the steps. I see when there's no handrail. I see when there are no handicapped parking spaces. I see when people without handicapped placards park in handicapped spaces. I note the location of handicapped stalls in public restrooms. (Usually, they are most inaccessible - at the end of the line of stalls. Why?)

I measure distances in blocks when talking to my Dad. I've redefined the term "cold" to match that of my parents. I've redefined how much light is enough to read. I've redefined what font size is "readable" in print or on outdoor signs. I appreciate the crosswalks that have between 26 and 60 seconds of "walk time." I cringe at intersections and rotaries that would spook drivers with slower reaction times. I am no longer frustrated by my fellow band-mates who need their own copy of the music, so they can pull it close enough to read.

While this new world can seem overwhelming to me and therefore to my Dad and other seniors, there are some bright spots. Those spots are typically not infrastructure related; they are people related. They are individuals who try to make the challenging world a bit less so for the seniors with whom they interact. These are the people who offer to lift a shopping cart up onto the bus, the cashiers who patiently wait for seniors to count out the bills to pay for groceries, the people at the UPS store who happily cut or staple for those with shaky hands.

I think if more of us see through the eyes of seniors and others with challenges we can help design a more accessible set of public spaces indoors and out. Moreover, we can step in when the infrastructure is not appropriate, to smooth the rough edges of their current, and our future, world.

Published Friday, November 20th, 2009

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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