Older adults may be better off living in age-segregated communities than in neighborhoods or buildings filled with young adults or families with kids. They may have better support, access to more services, and even a better sex life. That, at least, is the conclusion of University of Florida professor Stephen Golant, an environmental gerontologist and expert in the housing of aging populations.
Golant is no shill for senior communities. And he notes that many older adults end up in age-segregated communities through simple inertia rather than moving to formal senior living. Often, they age in place surrounded by other older adults doing the same thing. Big cities, for example, are full of apartment buildings populated by widows who were once young mothers. Their children moved on, their husbands died, but they stayed.
Many older adults, of course, do move to planned senior housing—communities for “active seniors, ” independent living, assisted living, nursing homes, or continuing care communities that combine all of the above. Some sit behind walls and guardhouses. Others enthusiastically open themselves to the broader community. But in nearly all cases, their ever-smiling marketing staff argue that mom will be “happier here” and their half-guilty adult children struggle to believe the sales pitch.
But Golant argues that it may, in fact, be true. For a detailed explanation, take a look at his book Aging in the Right Place. But for a brief summary of his message, read this essay from the website The Conversation (also reposted on the Huffington Post site). He concludes:
“We should not view the residential separation of the old from the young as necessarily harmful and discriminatory but rather as celebrating the preferences of older Americans and nurturing their ability to live happy, dignified, healthy and autonomous lives.”
Many advocates for the aging in place movement strongly disagree. They believe that older adults—and communities at large—are better off with heterogeneous populations where support crosses generations. Here is how a skeptical Golant describes this view:
“In their perhaps idyllic worlds, old and young generations should harmoniously live together in the same buildings and neighborhoods. Older people would care for the children and counsel the youth. The younger groups would feel safer, wiser and respectful of the old. The older group would feel fulfilled and useful in their roles of caregivers, confidants and volunteers. In question is whether these enriched social outcomes merely represent idealized visions of our pasts.”
Stephen thinks it does. In contrast to this ideal, he argues, the reality is often that seniors “live next to what they sometimes feel are noisy babies, obnoxious adolescents, indifferent younger adults or insensitive career professionals.”
Of course, living in a senior community does not guaranty happiness either. Residents may still be lonely and fail to get the services they need. As they become more frail or cognitively impaired, they can be shunned by long-time friends. For a powerful picture of what life can be like at a senior community, watch the 2013 Oscar nominated documentary Kings Point, about a senior community in Delray, FL (here’s an interview with the director Sari Gillman).
The story is, of course, extremely complicated. Some older adults crave mixed communities, even with screaming babies, obnoxious teens, and too-busy-for-words neighbors. Yet, staying at home means confronting tough choices.
Without supports, living at home can be difficult for older adults, especially for those in suburban subdivisions or rural communities. If they cannot drive, they are often trapped. Without sidewalks, they can’t exercise. Delivering services to them can be costly and time-consuming. And many of those subdivisions are essentially depopulated during the day, when parents are at work and kids are at school. They can be lonely places.
Yet, Golant notes, a critical mass of seniors living the same building or neighborhood can change that dynamic. The real benefit to what are sometimes called naturally occurring retirement communities is the ability to efficiently deliver services such as basic medical care, exercise classes, home delivered meals, shared transportation, and simple companionship. And these services and supports can be the difference between staying at home and having to move to a residential care facility.
Some older adults have taken this even further. They’ve created senior villages, those grass-roots self-help organizations that have sprung up in many (mostly middle-class) neighborhoods around the country. They are communities within communities where older adults can help each other.
Golant’s argument may be controversial but it is worth considering. There is no perfect answer to the “where should I live” question. And your answer may be very different from mine. But as we confront the question, we should keep the trade-offs in mind.