In our book, Enough of Us, we devote a chapter to “Caring for an Aging Population,” in which we refer to the “crisis of momentous proportion – how to meet the needs of a large and expanding population that can expect years of illness and disability.”
The group we refer to, of course, is the baby boomers. Will there be a sufficient number of caregivers for these seniors? Knowing full well that having children does not guarantee that the elderly will be cared for, we made clear that those over 65 “will need to conduct their own research in order to decide which resources will work as they age.”
Some pioneering seniors, both with and without offspring, have become captains of their own ships. Groups of these enterprising older adults have organized and reside in communities that go under the designation of senior cohousing. The idea was imported into the United States by Charles Durrett. Several such communities are established in California as well as in Virginia, Colorado and Massachusetts. Durrett is an architect and the author of Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living. In a 2005 interview, he made the point that the focus of most retirement planning is on financial well-being. He was adamant that few seniors “anticipate the many requirements for emotional well-being … Few have fully gripped the implications of their children being grown and often geographically scattered.”
One viable solution emerged in 2001 with the founding of Beacon Hill Village (BHV) in Boston by a group of seniors who wanted to help each other to thrive in their neighborhood as long as possible. Such senior communities have been springing up since 2005. Many go by the generic moniker “village.” Villages comprise a good example of the options that have opened up for people between ages 50 and 90. A 2012 organizational survey conducted by four colleges, including the Rutgers School of Social Work and the University of California, Berkeley, School of Social Work, analyzes this type of community.
Now they are independent non-profit organizations supported by member dues as well as outside donations. Members age in place and connect in many ways with the broader community through the Village to Village Network (VtV). Since Beacon Hill was established, more than 85 similar programs have opened in the United States, and about 120 more are in the development process.
These communities offer a smorgasbord of services provided by both resident volunteers and volunteers who live outside the communities: home maintenance, home health care, housekeeping, exercise groups, legal assistance, financial services, home-delivered meals, health education and mental health counseling. About two-thirds of villages offer reduced membership rates for those in financial need.
Then there are the Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities or NORCs, a program of the Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA). This model helps seniors age in place through the promotion of “healthy aging, independence and community building through a multifaceted approach,” which includes social services, health education, socialization and recreation. Between 2002 and 2008, JFNA helped its Federations get federal demonstration grants for “45 communities in 26 states.”
It’s pretty clear that many seniors, half of whom live alone (in villages), have not been sitting around waiting for their children to take care of them. Many have taken the initiative to maintain their independence in remarkably positive and creative ways. Some have never had children, yet still thrive. They are living proof that bearing offspring to take care of older generations is not necessarily the best option. Peer-helping-peer in community has proven to be a viable, if not superior, alternative. Those who are thinking twice about making children can consider scratching “children will be my caregivers when I reach old age,” off their list.