Visions of aging with our friends in new communities
The holidays are a time for gathering the generations, and this season conversations have turned to visions of a new model for strengthening generational ties and more wisely using both human and physical energy.
More than most cultures, we have taken too often to warehousing our elderly in unaffordable and unpleasant “assisted living'' units. With Baby Boomers heading into retirement, this model seems not only undesirable but unsustainable. Already more than half of the bulging Medicaid budget pays for long term care, much for elderly people who have exhausted all their options and spent all their money. Many Boomers, stressed by the Great Recession, can’t see paying into pricey long-term care insurance policies to avoid such a bleak future -- only to ensure one that is nearly as bleak. At the same time, with more than 40 percent of people in Denver living alone, the opportunity for a more efficient housing future seems great.
A more appealing model harkens back to the Boomers’ counter culture days and to the ways families have traditionally taken care of one another. Many of us wanted to live in communes when we were young, and our golden years may the perfect time to fulfill this dream. Rather than thinking of an old age in which we move into isolated rooms where strangers help us with daily tasks, how about thinking of a self-help model in which we decide how we want to age and start to make plans to turn our desires into reality? Perhaps some of the McMansions that sprawl across our urban and suburban areas could become homes not for one nuclear family but for small groups of friends and/or family who want to share their lives and help one another age with dignity – and laughter. Don’t we all secretly want to be Golden Girls ( and guys)?
Young family members or friends who need a place to live could move in rent free in exchange for providing some of the assistance that comes with assisted living. For college students or those just starting out, the chance to move into an extended family of blood or chosen relatives may offer an appealing and affordable alternative to a small isolated apartment. Much of the assistance needed by elderly people revolves around tasks such as lifting, dressing , transportation and cooking– activities not requiring medical training. Younger elders could provide child care, not to mention some life lessons.
These “intentional communities’’ might include people of varying ages, so that different levels of strength and energy would be blended. We would transform a medical model of aging into a more nurturing model. At the same time, we could more efficiently use some of the excessively large houses that are already here, taking the opportunity to remodel them into less energy-guzzling homes while making adjustments for aging in place. Zoning changes and some new legal structures might be needed, but laws respond to changing community desires.
Certainly some of us will need more intense medical care as we grow elderly. Some may need traditional nursing home or assisted living facilities. Many more may need home health care services and some of these elder communes could include on-staff medical care.
But with projections that many will be relatively healthy into our 80s and beyond, isn’t it time to start imagining the future we want?