An Inclusive Culture of Support

Rather than teams focusing on support for aging in place, I think it would be better to have a team focused on (1) what all community members need and (2) extending our notions about the abilities of all individuals to support others. Just because people are aging doesn’t mean they have more needs than anyone else.

As a society we have traditionally focused on the needs of children and parents, on "families," and "everyone" lived in families. Society wanted to see itself exactly as it appeared on TV in the 1950s. The goal was everyone with happy (white) faces and ironed clothes eating turkey and swimming. It is only in recent decades that we have recognized the need for public facilities designed to be used by people with varying physical abilities. That it is possible to provide equal education for all abilities rather than just ignoring them. And that there is a whole two generations of people who have needs just as those under 10 have others. (At 60, our residents who are 80, could be my parents.)

But the needs of members over 65 or 70 aren't very often for nursing. They are those that are shared by many younger people, too—sensitivity to noise, fear of falling or being knocked over, stronger reactions to illnesses floating around, etc. There are many young people have difficulty hearing in meetings and at noisy dinners. Younger people tend to hide it.

Inclusive Support

A focus on neighborly support—with a catchy name—would be more inclusive and relevant than a focus on aging in place. It would consider the needs of everyone and think about who could help with those needs. Everyone in the community should have some checkmarks on each side of the ledger—having their needs recognized and helping others. Even a person with an infant in a baby carrier can take in the morning paper for someone with a broken foot or arthritis, or be available on occasion when they have dropped something they can’t pick up. A person in a wheelchair can still serve as a coordinator and job broker on workdays.

My favorite example of a service intended to help two people that in fact served a needs of everyone:

When we put in an automatic door opener on the front door, it was thought to be for those using wheelchairs. In fact, a member who uses a wheelchair had donated it to the community. But it is valued and used many more times everyday by all those who are temporarily on crutches, pushing strollers, carrying bags, pushing laundry and shopping carts, etc. It is an asset I think we would replace without question even if we had no residents using wheelchairs.

Another is a service that only exists in a community with the abilities of widely varying age groups:

I have often taken babies and toddlers for the majority of the day because their parents needed to do housecleaning. In fact I find when children are around is the best time to do housecleaning because neither childcare nor housecleaning are inhibited by interruptions. But this is because I have decades of experience with both tasks and am often much more relaxed with babies and toddlers than first-time parents. So it is a pleasure for me when it is driving them crazy.

A Culture of More Equal Expectations

Empty nesters and the retired do most of the work in cohousing and if it continues, there will be more and more senior cohousing communities. While I'm not opposed to senior cohousing and understand its attraction, I don't think it is a good direction for cohousing. It removes the most experienced age-group from decision-making and planning, for example. An Africa reeling from AIDS is now suffering from a society with no older generation. If we don’t as a culture think about why we have senior cohousing and see the aging as needing nursing, we will have more and more senior communities. Not just because seniors have needs associated with aging; it's also because they don't want to continue to be on the heavy side of providing services to younger people or substituting for them in community management.

A major point of cohousing and perhaps its strongest benefit is to stop the separation of household types, incomes, and age groups. Mainstream housing separates people very efficiently. We have the suburbs dominated by people with children, cities dominated by singles and professionals, and now retirement communities for those over 55. (Obviously no one is confined to those categories but it has become characteristic.)

Cohousing has done a wonderful job of creating child friendly communities. It’s time to begin thinking of how the households with children and young professionals can support the rest of the community. For children to serve the needs of others just as theirs are served. For young professionals to recognize that their professional skills are needed at home. I love the descriptions of peasant kitchens, for example, where all ages have jobs. And quilting bees where the job of the children is to thread needles. It shouldn’t be a surprise when a child spontaneously notices a need and offers help. Or a professional arrives on time and stays until the end of the meeting.

The vast majority of seniors get along very well, thank you, without any more attention than anyone else as long as they aren't expected to continue to do the work they have been doing for the last decade or two. We just need to continue creating an inclusive culture of support.

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