March 2014 - Aging in CommunityI have been thinking about a book Vicki Bergman gave me recently, Aging in Community edited by Janice Blanchard. It includes many stories of groups who have explored models for aging in place across the U.S., including Princeton’s Community Without Walls. I think we are going to see a lot of growth in this area over the next decade.
I find myself at the life stage where my friends are retiring and moving. We came of age talking about returning to the land and living communally, lived in dorms and then apartments together before moving into private homes. As we launch our children into the world and retire from careers, many of us seek communities of mutual support. Several of my friends envision a setting with friends nearby, having private spaces as well as community spaces that invite coming together—back to the communes! Yet we are a little more savvy about the hard work required to sustain an intentional community than we were in our youth.
Many people today dread institutional care and are determined to remain in their homes. But Blanchard points out that aging in place alone often results in everything they feared: living alone; being cared for by strangers; loss of control, independence and dignity; loneliness; boredom! Our American ideal of being independent and individualistic actually contradicts true human nature, that we are very social beings.
Boomers know that we may have 30 years of healthy active living before we need care. We are not attracted to existing models of senior living communities. But the realities are that families live at a distance and many people live alone. Fewer people are involved in faith communities, retiring means leaving work relationships, and suburbanites often talk about feeling disconnected from neighbors. Connection with others is a basic human desire, and historically a survival necessity. So we may have to create our communities.
Blanchard proposes that aging in community presents a third way, neither institutionalization nor aging in place alone at home. A “community is a small group of people who voluntarily choose to rely on each other and to be relied upon over an extended period of time.” She defines the qualities of aging in community as: inclusive, sustainable, healthy, accessible, interdependent, and engaged. Participants “focus on building vital communities that engage people of all ages and abilities in a shared, ongoing effort to advance the common good” (pp. 10-11). In a later chapter, Janet Stambolian and Janice Blanchard suggest that these aging in place principles reflect the Woodstock Nation values (communitarian, egalitarian, environment, integration of mind-body-spirit, and social activism). Most of these communities are small, encouraging social connection, the bedrock of new friendships later in life.
The book illustrates how many different models there can be for aging in community. We foster community building at PSRC. Community Without Walls brings people together in groups for social interaction and peer support among members who live in their own homes throughout greater Princeton. Copperwood is being built in Princeton as an age-restricted rental community, with many of the features that can nurture community if the residents engage in that potential. Some neighborhoods are support communities. The Village model is another example that adds in-home services to community activities. In cohousing, residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own new intentional neighborhoods. Some are urban, rural or suburban. Some are intergenerational, some are age-related.
I think there are issues that have to be addressed for these communities to succeed. Foremost is how to manage when people begin to need a higher level of care than the community can provide. Another is defining the “glue” that keeps the community together; the shared belief, values, interests. Will residents dedicate the effort it takes to nurture the community? Is it accessible to people of lesser means, or even the solution if more care is peer-provided? Is paid staff needed? Are there lessons from these examples that can improve the mutual support potential of our existing residential communities and neighborhoods?
Where are your communities? How do you contribute to inter-dependence?
I will be watching these communities in the coming years to see how they evolve. Not only am I thinking ahead for myself, but also seeking ways that these trends present opportunities for PSRC. Housing is probably yet another area where Boomers will create new options never previously imagined.
Susan W. Hoskins, LCSW, Executive Director