How does aging “in community” differ from aging “in place”? And how can we age “in community” no matter where we live?
As caregivers for family members or friends, many of us find it difficult to think about what our own lives might look like in the future if we need long-term care. Tending to our loved ones today, right now, takes all of our energy.
But there is a grassroots movement of boomers who have witnessed their parents struggle with long-term care, and they want something different for themselves. They want to age not just “in place,” but “in community.”
Why age “in community”?
For many elders, aging “in place” in their own homes can mean isolation and loneliness. They may be house-bound or unable to drive. Visitors may be limited to a few hours a week of home health care aides, or Meals on Wheels. If these elders rely on family members or friends for most of their care, the caregivers often do not receive enough community support, such as respite services. Family caregivers frequently risk their own health, well-being, and financial security to provide care around the clock.
Boomers who are interested in aging “in community” want an alternative to aging by themselves at home, overtaxing family members, or being placed in a large facility. They seek to build a network of mutual support among friends, family, and their community, a network that allows them to help others now, and receive help in the future.
Aging in community can mean living in an intentional community such as in cohousing, or within a network of neighbors who volunteer to help each other, such as the Beacon Hill Village in Boston. It means finding or creating the places and relationships that can sustain us as we age or need long-term care.
Aging in community can also mean simply sticking by our friends as they age and need more help, even if, for example, they are living with frailty, dementia, or a disability. An example of a group of friends aging “in community” is Paula Span’s post on the New York Times’ New Old Age blog called “For the Love of Sunny,” about women who promise their friend with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease that they will remain her friend, visiting and caring for her for the rest of her life.
I have lived in a cohousing community with my family for 16 years, and believe that if we age in community we are more likely to remain healthier longer, stay in our own homes longer, and appreciate the gifts of giving and receiving care. We are more likely to accept that as human beings we are vulnerable and need each other. That asking for assistance and companionship is not a weakness. That aging well doesn’t necessarily mean running marathons at 70, but helping each other, despite physical or cognitive decline, to enjoy life and feel included and valued.
While not everyone will want to live in an intentional community such as cohousing, there are many other ways we can expand our circle of mutual support, no matter where we live. (See my list of recommended books and blogs below.)
I believe that if my mother, Judy, had not lived alone in an isolated cottage on a lake until she was 72 (then in my home and various dementia care facilities until her death at age 80 in late 2012)—if she had lived “in community” for many years—her quality of life would have been radically different.
Can you age “in community” in a facility?
While you might think that aging “in community” would rule out aging in a facility, many elder care experts disagree. Some argue that aging “in community” can happen within an elder care facility if it supports a certain “culture” of elder care. Such facilities embrace an atmosphere in which both elders and professional caregivers are respected and empowered as individuals, and where truly close relationships—real friendships—can develop between staff and residents. Just two examples of elder care facilities that qualify as a “community” include nursing homes on The Eden Alternative® registry, and Green House Project® nursing homes (both of which, by the way, accept residents on Medicaid, so they’re not just for the wealthy).
And finally, here are some of my favorite books and blogs about aging in community.
Recommended Books about Aging in Community:
Aging in Community, Revised Edition, edited by Janice Blanchard, 2013:
Blanchard does an excellent job of bringing together a number of stimulating essays by major figures in the aging in community movement. Some essays are more technical—the ins and outs of forming a cooperative village such as Beacon Hill, for example—while others are more lyrical. If you don’t already live in a place that’s conducive to aging in community, what would such a place look like, and how could you find one or create one? Read this book to be inspired.
Your Quest for Home: A Guidebook to Find the Ideal Community for Your Later Years, by Marianne Kilkenny (author) and Cheri G Britton M.Ed. (designer), 2014. In this guidebook, Marianne Kilkenny has laid out steps for you to take, questions that need answering, and ideas to ponder to help you define and then create the community you want to live in.
Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities, by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, 2011: Cohousing started in Denmark years ago. This book is the recognized “bible” of cohousing, written by the creators of the U.S. version of cohousing.
Senior Cohousing Handbook, A Community Approach to Independent Living, 2nd edition, by Charles Durrett, 2009: Senior cohousing, also started in Denmark, is spreading across the U.S., attracting people aged 50 and older.
Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small Scale Community in a Large Scale World, by Ross Chapin. From Amazon: “‘Pocket Neighborhoods’ introduces an antidote to faceless, placeless sprawl — small scale neighborhoods where people can easily know one another, where empty nesters and single householders with far-flung families can find friendship or a helping hand nearby, and where children can have shirt-tail aunties and uncles just beyond their front gate.”
Share the Care: How to Organize a Group to Care for Someone Who is Seriously Ill, by Cappy Caposella and Sheila Warnock, 2004: Caregivers often think, at least at first, that they can do everyone by themselves. That cannot last; we all need help and support. Any caregiver—or a friend or family member of a primary caregiver—can organize a group of people to share the care: the driving, doctor appointments, cooking, cleaning, phone calls to check in, and visits. A way to create “community” in any location.
Websites about Aging in Community:
What would aging “in community” look like to you? Is it something that you are interested in, and does it feel attainable to you?