By Christian Clansky, Program Associate
Disney/Pixar’s Up opens with a touching scene. Faced with the prospect of being forced out of his lifelong home and into a sterile retirement facility, senior citizen Carl Fredricksen ties thousands of balloons to his house and charts an aerial course for the fabled Paradise Falls. His determination not to be labeled as incapable or undeserving of his own freedom is familiar; we cheer his victorious escape and reclamation of autonomy.
The University of Florida’s Dr. Stephen Golant would have us reconsider. Headlining a panel of experts on aging at the September 23rd joint Working Group on Aging and Community Development Support Collaborative program, Golant challenged a room full of funders and agency leaders with a question: Do the downsides of aging in place, especially for suburban and low-income homeowners outweigh the benefits? (cont.)
In public discourse, the perceived ideal, noted time and again in AARP surveys, is for aging individuals to remain in their homes. Seniors see this as an either/or proposition: aging in place in their homes or move to a nursing home. But Golant pointed out that there are many factors to consider when choosing whether or not to age in place, many other options to pick from.
In light of the recession and corresponding decline in housing values, 48% of seniors spend more than half of their income on housing and 14% of seniors over age 75 still have mortgages. The result is that many are unable to manage basic home maintenance, and have to decide whether to eat or pay for medications.
Seniors with deceased spouses and long-distance relatives risk becoming isolated and lonely. Some who rely on family for medical care receive inadequate support – family members are not born good caregivers, Golant pointed out, just as people aren’t born good lawyers or doctors.
All of these things are proven to factor in to an individual’s long-term heath.
Moreover, seniors remaining in their homes affect their communities as well. Held real estate is not available to younger generations. State and federal real estate tax revenue is lower for seniors. Remodeling businesses don’t typically receive business from seniors and moving companies suffer. And, retirement destinations and communities feel the negative economic impact from senior choosing to age in place.
With all of this in mind, Golant pointed out that aging in place is indeed a viable and healthy option for many people, but certainly not for everybody. For those who should consider other options, he emphasized that staying in one’s home and moving to retirement facilities are only the two ends of the spectrum. Other options include buying a smaller home or condo, renting an apartment, moving in with family members, or taking up residence in a naturally occurring retirement community (NORC) or in a neighborhood with a Beacon Hill-type of village or similar model where economics of scale allow services and care to be delivered more efficiently and affordably.
As advances in medicine prolong life expectancy and the Baby Boomer generation prepares for retirement, suburban communities will be faced with what is being called the “Silver Tsunami.” Far more seniors than ever before will soon be making the choice about whether or not to age in place.
It is essential, Golant concluded, that we “soften the aging in place message,” reduce caregiver guilt, and discuss other housing arrangements and options. He urged organizations like AARP to mount a communications effort to make older adults aware of other housing options. We must get rid of the idea that a senior moving out of his or her home is a tragic moment.
And, most importantly, we must encourage a consideration of what is best for both seniors and the communities around them.