There is a movement afoot in this country. Some call it revolutionary. More than 110 new-age “Villages” have cropped up in the United States. There are another 120 in development according to the Village to Village Network. You probably have not heard of this grassroots movement because it is the work of old people – senior citizens.
“It’s a grass-roots movement on the part of older people who did not want to be patronized, isolated, infantilized,” one participant recently told NPR. “That’s what we felt was out there for us. And we felt quite competent in taking care of ourselves.”
The village community model combines aging in place with an interdependent support network. This arrangement helps make aging alone possible as members progressively age and need more assistance. Older members of a neighborhood or group of neighborhoods are linked with one another as well as with a network of volunteer and paid services. It is this interdependence component that separates Villages from traditional assisted living.
Studies show that most Americans would prefer to stay where they are as they get older. One AARP survey found 89 percent of Americans would like to live in their current homes as long as possible. That number rose to 95 percent when people over age 75 were asked the question.
If you are among the Baby Boomer generation, you need to be looking carefully at this development. Before you know it, figuring out how to live independently is one of the many challenges you will be facing. You will also find it can be mighty lonely out there; families disperse, friends are lost or fade away. Many experts believe a loneliness epidemic is developing in the United States and the U.S. should consider following Britain’s lead in making loneliness a public-health priority.
While research on loneliness among all adults in the U.S. is scarce, a 2012 study found that between 20 and 43 percent of American adults over age 60 experienced “frequent or intense” loneliness. Loneliness wreaks havoc on health because it removes the safety net of social support. Feeling lonely has been found to increase a person’s risk of dying early by 26 percent. It is worse for the body than obesity or air pollution.
Baby boomers need to realize that middle age will soon be in the rearview mirror. What will they do then – especially if they should find themselves alone? Research shows these to be questions people between the ages of 40 to 65 tend to avoid. This even holds true when they are caregivers struggling to assist an aging parent through loss of mobility, memory and independence. They still cannot imagine themselves in their parent’s shoes some day. If they did, they might look differently at the limited choices in care their loved ones face.
In her book “With a Little Help From Our Friends,” journalist and author Beth Baker notes that as recently as 1900, the average life expectancy in the United States was 45. In a typical family, the father would die before the children left home. “The whole notion of empty nest is a modern concept. The notion of retirement is a modern concept. These are hugely significant developments,” she writes.
Baker believes modern society has developed a sense of ambivalence about the meaning of old age. She reminds us that older people were once viewed with respect and admiration and seen as wise counselors. The loss and frailty that accompanies old age were understood to give elders more compassion and wisdom than younger people who had not yet faced life’s trials. Today, old age is viewed as a vexing problem. It is often defined by physical and cognitive decline of people who are economically useless.
Baker writes about a 2013 Yale School of Public Health study documenting extreme ageism on Facebook. It found 84 groups consisting of more than 25,000 members focused on older people. Of these groups, all but one were sites where people espoused extremely negative views of their elders. One group even proclaiming that anyone “over the age of 69 should immediately face a firing squad,” while other groups described elders as “infantile” people who should not be allowed to drive or shop.
Older people were seen as no more than a problem that needed fixing. The solution included the development of tens of thousands of nursing homes, assisted living and retirement communities. To fend off the stigma of aging, a $100 billion industry of “anti-aging” products emerged. Forgotten was the lesson of the Blue Zones, those rare longevity hotspots around the world where people value their elders and keep them close.
Increasingly today – through researchers, advocates and older people themselves – there is push back against long-held ageism. Aging in place and naturally occurring retirement communities such as the Village are challenging the assumption that being old, by definition, means being frail, vulnerable, and helpless.
Research shows that older people who believe they have something valuable to contribute to their families and their communities feel healthier. They are much more likely to successfully age in place than their peers who hold more negative views about their lives.
As Baker points out, the truth is old age is a frontier that none of us can predict until we’re trekking through the middle of it. The essential question facing each of us as we age is: how can we balance our desire for independence with staying connected to others?
The end of life is a nonnegotiable thing. What we cannot lose sight of is that the quality and exact length of that life is something we very much have the power to shape.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.