Quest for Housing Leads to New Alternatives
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Herald-Tribune by Kathy Silverberg, a former publisher of the Herald-Tribune’s southern editions.
Among the most difficult decisions facing older people as they age is where to live out their days.
For many, it is a topic to be avoided. First, the very idea of getting older and needing a safer, healthier place to live is not one many people relish. Second, it can be hard to envision a day when the definition of “home” changes either gradually or because of an unplanned event such as the death of a spouse or a health crisis.
Yet, for some who have planned well, saved their money and begun investigating options before circumstances demanded an immediate decision, this can be far easier.
In this region, there are many good options for older Sarasotians to live, places where older adults can live independently while enjoying a variety of social activities as well as access to help when they need it. But these places, called Continuing Care Retirement Communities, or CCRCs, come at a price that puts them out of reach for many if not most older people.
Even assisted living facilities, or ALFs, which can come at a lower price and target those who may need more help with personal care, can be out of reach. Likewise, with skilled nursing facilities, the cost for many is prohibitive. Medicare pays for little in this arena and Medicaid, the health care program for low-income people, comes with many strings attached.
So when none of these options is viable, other alternatives should be considered. For many older adults, the desire to stay in their own home must be weighed against the need for companionship, and in some instances, the economic pressures of dwindling savings over an extended retirement.
Isolation and financial constraints are two primary reasons for health declines in older people. Researchers have found that loneliness takes a toll on health, both physical and mental, leading to an early death. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University, found that social isolation, loneliness or living alone can shorten life at least as much as obesity.
Interestingly, and despite what might be considered an interconnected world, younger people as well are experiencing greater degrees of loneliness. A Cigna Insurance study indicated that millennials, those 23 to 37 years old, as well as their younger counterparts 18 to 22, are lonelier than any other demographic and report being in worse health than older generations.
All of this came to mind in reading about a new program just getting off the ground in Sarasota. Under the umbrella of the Friendship Centers, a five-county senior services organization, the idea is to match older adults living alone with younger singles struggling to find and pay for adequate housing.
In her article for the Herald-Tribune, Barbara Peters Smith noted that one-third of Sarasota County’s housing units are occupied by only one person and, of that number, 60 percent are 65 and older.
If the two could be brought together — if the older adult living alone with rooms to spare could rent space to a single person, perhaps one just getting started in a career — there could be benefits for both parties. The opportunity for companionship is a significant upside, and the chance for both to benefit from an improvement in their financial status makes sense as well.
Other models are coming on the scene to address the needs of a fast-growing older segment of the population. The co-housing movement is bringing together people in a communal setting with individual living quarters and spaces for group dining and recreation along with shared services like transportation and shopping. Some co-housing developments are intergenerational while others cater to older adults who have tired of maintaining large family homes.
Another model, called the Village Movement, joins older adults through a membership fee structure to facilitate social interaction and support services. It got its start in the Boston area nearly two decades ago and has spread to some 200 similar initiatives around the nation.
These and other initiatives speak to the growing need to address both the high cost of housing and the problems associated with loneliness that are plaguing younger workers as well as seniors.
Certainly, the imperative is to find new ways of living for the burgeoning segment of older Americans who are likely to need more accessible surroundings. But the lessons learned could lead to a better life for people of all ages.
No one size will fit all, and there will be bumps in the road, but the search must continue as the nation and world deal with the realities of a population living longer lives. Making those lives richer and more fulfilling must be the goal.