Our approach to dealing with issues affecting the elderly in the US is about to become more important than ever. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by the year 2050, the elderly population is expected to increase to 86.1 million people. Some of the problems this age group face include age segregation, access to care, decreased activity, and overall decreased quality of life. While there are plenty of other problems the elderly face, I mention these specific ones because collectively they represent a cultural attitude on the way we care for our elderly in the U.S. It’s difficult not to paint this issue with a broad brush but research has shown that in fact, Americans have a problem with how we view aging.
My husband’s grandmother, Tita, lived what I believe to be an ideal life for an aged person. She lived independently for over 20 years after her husband passed but it was not without the help of her family and friends. Because the social/family structure is so strong in Europe, age segregation is less prevalent as the elderly are an integral part of the community. My brother in law, his wife, and their 3 children have lived in very close proximity to Tita for the past 15 years. During this time, Tita often cared for her 20 great grandchildren, cooking large meals for all of the family and friends passing by, and even helped out from time to time with the family business that my brother in law runs. Having her grandson and his wife so close, was Tita’s saving grace. She was able to stay at home well into her 90s because of the security of having family so near while still maintaining her independence. She would help the 3 great grandchildren that lived across the way with their homework every day after school, she was an avid reader, enjoyed gardening, and was not afraid to take on chores that required a little elbow grease. She was always moving, except for her 45 min 4 o’clock nap, and maintained a healthy diet. She sought medical care when she needed it and never had to worry about how much a doctor’s visit or medications were going to cost because the elderly in France don’t have to worry about going into debt over medical issues. There was a sense of security in every aspect of her life, from feeling safe in her own home to knowing that she could rely on a public system put in place if she needed it.
Its funny how in America we spend almost our entire lives striving for independence and privacy and for the majority of us, we end up in communal housing at the end of our lives anyway. Americans are known for being individualistic and our need of “personal space.” The idea of living in close proximity to one another for the sake of truly being in each other’s lives has for the most part been widely unaccepted. But times are a changin’, and baby boomers are envisioning are very different retirement. Research has shown time and time again that staying active, lifelong learning, and social interaction are key components to a high quality of life for the elderly. And so, many of today’s baby boomers are embracing multigenerational cohousing. They are choosing to live in communities that are open to all generations, not just 55+, to continue to be involved in a multifaceted community. The cohousing concept originates from northern Europe, where it has been in place since the 1950s. The residents of these communities typically live side by side in their own living spaces i.e. an apartment or house, and share a common living area where they will come together for meals or events such as a holiday or to watch a sports game. This type of co living is great for anyone looking for a sense of community but especially for single parents and the elderly. Single parents who may not feel that they have adequate support being on their own can benefit from having other adults around to help keep an eye on their children and the elderly benefit from this interaction with the children by staying engaged and participating in healthy activities together such as gardening, crafting, or other interactive activities . And of course the benefit for the children is huge- exposure to multiple generations on a daily basis promotes empathy and fosters a sense of awareness about their own selves and longevity. I’m certain that Tita remained active largely in part to having her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren around often. Her sister and brother also lived close by and she had many friends in the region. Everyone from the different age groups had something to contribute- from looking after the great grandchildren to lively adult dinner conversations, there was an array of activity that led to a rich and full life.
Baby boomers are slowly but surely changing the way we view the elderly in this country and as they force us to take a look at our age segregation problem, many of the social issues that the elderly face, are not placed high on our agenda of needs to be met. Are we more likely to sweep these issues under the rug that our elderly face because we simply do not interact with them more often? Would we be more empathetic to their needs such as high cost of medical care (access to care), housing, and affordable healthy food options if we were living side by side and had daily interactions/reminders of elderly needs? I think baby boomers believe so and as the dreaded assisted living facility or nursing home looms, this generation is setting the stage for how they live out their final years as they change the face of the cohousing movement.