PUMPNG IRONY: Home Alone?

The vast majority of elderly Americans live at home because they can’t afford the services offered at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. A nascent movement, however, is emerging to answer that challenge.

Community

When My Lovely Wife and I moved into our current abode a little more than five years ago, I made a bold declaration: “I’m never moving again. They’re going to have to carry me out of here feet first.”

It was partly a result of exhaustion — having just schlepped all our worldly possessions from Point A to Point B — and partly a determination to settle in for a good long stretch after 40 years of moving around way too often. Left unsaid, but certainly implied, was the rather smug presumption that my future would not include a detour through a nursing home or assisted-living facility. You could call that a best-case scenario. But is it realistic? Can any of us expect to live out our final years among family and friends in the comfortable surroundings of our own home, rather than in some cold, impersonal institution?

Turns out, it’s a lot more common than I had thought. And it’s not always the best-case scenario.

Facing Aging Facts

According to a 2012 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study, only about 15 percent of folks 65 and older were living in nursing homes in 2011. Another 3 percent or so were in senior housing facilities. Those numbers would be reassuring if the context was not so depressing: Basically, all these elderly folks are living in their own homes because they can’t afford to live in facilities that might serve them better.

As Janice Blanchard notes in this article for Generations, the journal of the American Society on Aging, more than half of all retirees have less than $25,000 in savings. Put that up against the estimated $220,000 the average 65-year-old couple will need to cover medical expenses during their retirement and you’ll get a sense of why so many geezers stay in their homes — even if they’d rather move to more serviceable digs.

This is all top of mind for MLW and me in the aftermath of her mother’s nine-month journey from emergency room to intensive care to hospice to nursing home that ended with her peaceful passing back in May. During and after that ordeal, a lot of foreign concepts — long-term care insurance, Medicare coverage, healthcare directives — loomed large and got us thinking about our own options as we roll into our golden years.

We’d both come of age in an era and community that embraced a good many forms of local self-reliance and mutual aid. Neighborhood activists created food co-ops and housing co-ops and other alternative organizations to provide basic services that were owned and managed by their users. So, why couldn’t local communities of geezers band together to look after one another rather than having to rely on children or professional home health aides? Why couldn’t elderly folks work together to build housing with common areas for cooking, eating, and socializing rather than paying the outrageous costs of assisted-living facilities or nursing homes?

Well, it turns out that these sorts of initiatives are already underway in pockets around the country. Blanchard highlights a few of the more noteworthy projects — the Circle of Caring on Whidbey Island in Washington, Golden Girls Homes right here in Minneapolis (who knew?), Beacon Hill Village in Boston, Glacier Circle Senior Community in Davis, Calif., and Elderspirit Community in Abingdon, Va. — and suggests that it’s only the beginning of an exciting and far-reaching movement that could change the face of aging in America.

“To date, aging-in-community models remain on the fringe — much like organic foods, recycling, and alternative medicine when they first appeared,” Blanchard writes. “Just as these concepts have become mainstream, however, so it is likely that cohousing, shared housing, villages, and other alternative models yet to be developed will one day become common housing and lifestyle choices. Driving these new housing arrangements by choice are baby boomers, particularly those considered to be the ‘cultural creatives’ — people who buy with their values; are involved in community organizations and social and political activities; find innovative solutions in creating their living environment; and who place a high value on the quality of their life situation.”

I’m guessing that would describe a good number of geezers around these parts — and around the country. Folks who’d like to have a little more say in how this whole aging thing plays out in the coming years. It might just help guys like me stay in their homes as a choice rather than as a necessity.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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