Designs on Unassisted Living

Jeffrey Rosenfeld ’68 has made a career as a sociology professor and author, but if he had to name one class that he would consider a touchstone of his student days at URI, it was art history with Professor Robert Rohm. “He opened my eyes to new ways of seeing, and one reason I was drawn to sociology at URI is that it too involves different ways of seeing.”

Like many other URI students of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s who went on to become writers, Rosenfeld also gained a lot from studying with English Professor Nancy Potter. He refers to her as his “role model” who gave him “the first serious feedback I ever received on my writing.” Those skills, along with the new ways of seeing he learned with Rohm, stood Rosenfeld in good stead when he was working on his latest book, Unassisted Living: Ageless Homes for Later Life (The Monacelli Press), which he wrote with architect Wid Chapman.

The coffee table volume deals with the ways baby boomers—the 75 million Americans born during the post-war years from 1946 to 1964—are changing the landscape of retirement living. The volume combines gorgeous color photographs of city apartments, wilderness retreats, multifamily compounds, functional home-offices and studios, and funky bungalows along with commentary on the architecture and the new philosophies of aging that inform the choices that boomers are making in designing their retirement homes.

The first generation to grow up with television and rock ’n’ roll, baby boomers spent their adult years riding the waves of countless revolutions including computers, the Internet, cell phones, and electronic commerce. They are entering retirement with the same innovative spirit, Rosenfeld said during an interview in Manhattan where he teaches Design for Aging Populations at Parsons The New School for Design: “Boomers are often in great condition, and they are planning for their later years very differently than today’s elderly did.”

The plans are as varied as the millions of boomers nearing retirement age. Still, Rosenfeld spotted a few trends that seem to be popular with large swaths of this age group, who are turning 65 at the rate of roughly 10,000 a day. Some of these trends are:

Bistro Living: Moving out of large suburban homes into smaller dwellings near city centers with easy access by walking or mass transit to cultural, social, and recreational activities; “this interest in sophisticated living has kept surprisingly large numbers of boomers from relocating to planned communities,” Rosenfeld remarked.

Three Generations Together: Multifamily homes and communities planned for boomers to retire near their children and grandchildren.

Getaways: Turning vacation homes into primary residences.

Living Off the Grid: Houses closer to nature or wilderness areas that are connected through technology to vital services and by easy transportation to family and friends.

The book identifies eight trends altogether and gives examples of homes designed with those goals in mind. One of the most surprising trends to Rosenfeld was the popularity of housing arrangements enabling several generations of the same family to live with or near each other: “One of the really surprising things was my discovery of multigenerational family houses. When I started the book I was expecting something else. But I discovered that many boomers are trying to live with three generations of their own family; that’s a celebration of family that I wasn’t expecting to see. I was expecting to see cooperative housing, and I did find that. I was expecting to see a lot of home offices, and I found that too.

“I also found that boomers are the beneficiaries of a lot of new technologies including telemedicine, telepharmacy, and robotics. It will allow many boomers to live by themselves as long as they want. There is a whole mythology of elderly people abandoned because they are old; this is the opposite—this is being isolated by choice.”

A sociologist specializing in gerontology, Rosenfeld, who earned a master’s from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has written several books about aging. His first book, Legacy of Aging, grew out of his dissertation on the growing number of contested wills: “It was a look at why older people disinherit their children.” The book was featured in Psychology Today, and Rosenfeld appeared on TV to discuss it on The Today Show With Phil Donohue.

Rosenfeld said he was well-prepared for his career by a top-notch sociology faculty at URI, including Ralph W. England, “a talented criminologist whose course included a class trip to the state penitentiary,” and Robert Gardner, “the professor who encouraged me to go on for graduate work at UMass, Amherst.

“But if I were to acknowledge anybody at URI, foremost would be Nancy Potter. I had three different classes with her, including her fabled Faulkner seminar. The first serious feedback on my writing came from her. Along with my friend Robert M. Boyar ’68, I took the honors colloquium that she organized. I’ve kept in touch with Robert over the years; he’s an attorney in Morristown N.J., and we agree that Nancy Potter is unforgettable.”

He recalled that Potter “chose creativity as the theme for the 1967–1968 colloquium and invited artists, architects, writers, actors, and dancers to visit URI and speak on creativity. This included film critic Pauline Kael and the architects who designed Boston’s path-breaking City Hall. Students had to sign on for dinner with at least two speakers; I ended up dining with Nancy Potter and Susan Sontag!”

Rosenfeld fell in love with URI when he was still in high school and his parents drove him up from Long Beach, N.Y., for a visit: “The first time my folks drove me up to see the place, I just knew. While I was there, I grew to love the food, the folklore, and the spirit of Rhode Island.”

Rosenfeld has remained active in the URI alumni community, interviewing high school students for the Office of Admission and organizing reunions for his fraternity, AEPi: “I love to go back in autumn to see the fall foliage—it makes me feel like I’m 18 again.”

By David Gregorio ’80