The Last Battle for the Future
Time for change
I can still remember being a teenager and dreaming about my future. There was a handsome man, half the children my mother had (she had six, I wanted three), and I would live in New York City. I loved reading, so I wanted to be a writer and pictured a peaceful life with quiet children, all coming together around the dinner table at night. In my fantasy, there were no dirty dishes, laundry, screaming kids, not enough money or fights with the people I loved. Reality was not yet part of the picture.
Fast forward. The past has finally filled itself: university wasn’t finished, there was no Prince Charming, I do my writing on the side, I had two marvellous children but lost one when he was twenty-five, and I struggle for enough money to feel secure.
But believe it or not, the life I both planned and inherited has turned out to be a good one. Despite the ups and downs, I’m still excited to get up every morning. I always have interesting work to do. Friends are not as abundant as they used to be, but the ones I see are treasures. My sisters are all alive, and we’re like six peas in a pod.
It’s this next stage of life I’m not looking forward to. You know, the one where the body gives out, where living alone is no longer a good idea, where my GP feels like my life partner and where I end up surrounded by only old people, eating cafeteria food in an institution.
Throughout my life, people of all ages have been part of my daily life. It’s always fascinating to encounter young people who are so different and yet the same as I was at their age. The street I presently live on has exactly eight people over fifty — I’ve counted — and I like being one of the “oldies” my neighbours encounter. Seeing my granddaughter grow up yanks me back into my teen years. It brings me closer to my son as he tries to steer her in the right direction, usually getting rolled eyes in response. It reminds me of when my boys made a pact to hide from me any juicy information about their lives.
Daily contact with different generations is very important. It’s also crucial that these encounters happen spontaneously in daily life: on the street, in the grocery store, in parks, taking out the recycling.
But when you put dozens or hundreds of seniors in one place for the last part of their lives, you rob them of spontaneous meetings with other age groups. Have you ever looked at the faces of young people walking into a care facility for a visit? Their expressions range from dubious to fear, from reluctance to looking for the exit.
If you think about it, rounding up all the elderly and putting them together in one place to live out their last years only makes sense if you’re concentrating solely on keeping physical bodies alive and close to medical care. If you expand your concerns to mental health, social and community engagement, and sharing or mentoring of talents and experiences, the model comes up desperately short.
On the other hand, aging at home, either alone or with a partner, is also not a great choice. As our bodies become fragile and we slow down, steer clear of stairs and recover from various replacement parts, medical care becomes necessary. You can find yourself either in and out of the hospital or ringing up large invoices for home care.
Even if you’re in fine shape, social isolation is associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia, a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
OK, I’m sorry I’ve led you here with no “Notice to Reader.” These are my Bleak Future Thoughts.
If you’re more optimistic about your future in a seniors’ residence, I envy you.
However, for me, it’s totally unfair to pull people out of real life and put them in institutions until they die. Other countries have found more respectful and humane ways to deal with the elderly. It’s time Canada started supporting some creative alternatives for our last phase of life.
There’s a glimmer that things are starting to change…. but not for everyone.
Co-Housing options are sprouting up across Canada — apartment complexes where people of all ages share common facilities and develop a community of support. These are still few and far between, but they are a move in the right direction. However, they are only for people who can buy in with equity from a house they currently own. For people like me, a terminal renter, there’s nothing but the not-so-bad senior residences.
I’ve spent the last ten years pushing for and trying to create new housing options for seniors. Houses where a small group of seniors can co-live, supporting each other and living by themselves or with younger people they mentor or a single-parent family they help. Places where we can become fragile and at the same time live life with a purpose, not just with a schedule. Where we can cook for ourselves and each other, organize our own activities, and be part of a neighbourhood when we walk (or roll) out the door.
But these options require a new vision of senior housing. Government support and/or developer investment only see a future tsunami of aging boomers they can put into more and more towers, making a bundle along the way.
Changing how and where we age is a very complex topic. It doesn’t just concern what WE want as we age. It also reveals how our society sees the contribution — or not — of its aging population. It reflects on the choices (or guilt) we’ve made for our own parents. It requires people in their 70s or 80s to fight for a future that is not being offered at a time when we thought our fighting was finished.
It’s a difficult battle, but we have to get it done before we can’t get off the couch. Our health and last chapter depend on it.