Nationally renowned aging expert Dr. Bill Thomas unveiled today the first-of-its-kind robotic prefabricated Minka house built on the University of Southern Indiana (USI) campus in less than a week featuring universal design accessibility and advanced manufacturing technology. The Minka will serve as a model house, simulation lab for USI students and a building block for creating age-friendly communities.
The USI Minka model house is the culmination of a year-long “MAGIC” (Multi-Ability, multi-Generational, Inclusive Community) pilot project supported by the USI Foundation and AARP that is kickstarting a cultural transformation related to aging and community design. It builds off Dr. Thomas’ near 30 years of innovation as founder of The Eden Alternative global non-profit, The Green House Project, Senior Emergency Room and ChangingAging.org.
“This Minka house represents history in the making,” said Dr. Ann White, dean of USI’s College of Nursing and Health Professions. “This exciting pilot project is bringing together a variety of academic disciplines on our campus to work with Dr. Thomas and our community in innovative ways. USI is proud to be a leader in exploring new approaches and solutions to the broader societal issues of aging and independent living for all people.”
Minka, launched in 2017 by Dr. Thomas, is now working to design and build MAGIC communities with partners in Evansville, as well as in Clearfield, Penn., Loveland, Colo., Victoria, Texas and other communities. Minka’s prefabricated housing system was created in collaboration with Denmark-based AGJ Architects to develop a globally-affordable housing platform that can be adapted to meet the needs of people of different ages and abilities.
In Pennsylvania, a vacant elementary school and 23 acres of woodland purchased by the Clearfield County Area Agency on Aging (AAA) this month will be transformed into an intergenerational dementia-friendly community featuring Thomas’ Minka and the MAGIC model inviting people of all ages to live together.
The Clearfield AAA partnered with Dr. Thomas’ New York-based Minka and AJGA to develop the 60-home “Minka Village of Hope.” The development will include a mix of single family and multi-family Minka homes featuring smart home technology, universal design accessibility and will repurpose the schoolhouse into a mixed-use commercial and arts engagement center.
To create places where people living with dementia can thrive, Dr. Thomas says “we must build communities that embrace people of different ages and abilities, rather than putting them in institutions just because they are frail or forgetful.
“I spent decades fighting to make the long-term care system better and created innovative alternatives such as The Green House,” Thomas said. “But I’ve also learned that people want real communities, not facilities.”
The Girard Goshen Elementary School, closed since 2013, will be converted into a community center featuring a mix of retail, health services and local creative arts engagement programs designed with community participation to help reconnect people living with dementia to their community, said Clearfield County AAA director Katherine Gillespie.
“Our families are devastated by skyrocketing rates of Alzheimer’s disease because our communities quite frankly are not designed to include them and help them thrive,” said Clearfield County AAA director Kathleen Gillespie. “We’re partnering with Dr. Thomas to build the Village of Hope to give families hope that people living with dementia can participate and enjoy life when they live in a community that welcomes and includes them.”
Clearfield community stakeholders embraced an emphasis on arts engagement in the first of a series of MAGIC participatory design workshops led by Dr. Thomas’ team in August 2018.
“Each person lives with a unique set of physical and cognitive abilities, and every one of us needs to use those abilities to their fullest extent. The creative arts offer some amazing pathways for building relationships and communities,” said Thomas, who launched Minka after spending four years touring North America with a theatrical production called the ChangingAging Tour that has performed in 128 cities. Sponsored by AARP, the tour uses theatrical arts and participatory design to support age-friendly and dementia-friendly community development in the U.S. and Canada.
Both the USI MAGIC project and the Village of Hope draw on the Tour to support people of all ages and abilities to overcome the social stigma associated with aging or memory loss, said Minka director Kavan Peterson, who co-founded ChangingAging and leads its age- and dementia-friendly programs.
“For decades the only story we’ve heard about aging is one of loss, decline and despair,” Peterson said. “But there is a new story. It is a story of connection, expression, joy and growth. It is a story told by people living with dementia, by those who love them, and by people of all ages who want to live in diverse and welcoming communities.”