We’re getting older every day, and so is the rest of the world. As MNN points out, by 2020 there will be more people on earth over the age of 60 than under the age of 5. That means we need to start thinking about how we are going to support the elderly as this population grows. Our social systems will have to evolve to support a larger elderly population and as people are having fewer children, we need to plan in advance for fewer caregivers.
That leaves us with quite a predicament when it comes to housing, engaging and caring for our elderly communities. But, that doesn’t mean it can’t be solved. In fact, there are communities that are setting great examples for the future right now.
Bringing the Young and Old Together
The tiny, but quite innovative, nation of the Netherlands saw their nursing-home-meets-college-dorm program hit viral success a couple years back. PBS explains that the initiative provides university students free housing if they agree to live with the elderly and act as “good neighbors” helping their fellow residents with activities, visiting the ill, and overall just making friends.
The initiative was groundbreaking because it solved a major issue that the elderly face: isolation. At the same time, having the college kids around helped liven up the living accommodations, spur new conversations, and as a program administrator put it to PBS “The students bring the outside world in, there is lots of warmth in the contact.”
Young children are paired with seniors at a Seattle daycare that’s run inside a nursing home. By integrating the clumsy liveliness of youngsters with the slower-paced elderly, both the children and seniors were able to benefit from the interaction. The solution works because it gives the seniors purpose and daily activities, while providing supervision for the children and a break for the parents.
Giving the Elderly Jobs in the Community
No, we don’t mean taking grandma out of retirement, but giving the elderly jobs that stimulate them can help them live longer and more fulfilled lives. So if we can’t get some of the elderly into retirement communities where they can be safe and cared for, or into initiatives like those mentioned above, we can engage them ourselves.
A video on elder empowerment in Singapore sheds light on the fact that when given the power to make change — in this case, in the design of their nursing home, and then the care of it — the elderly had improved cognition and mood.
Communities can employ this strategy by engaging the elderly in communal gardens for example, as could nursing homes. Elder communities can also bring a sense of purpose and empowerment to seniors by having them cook meals together or take on group projects.
Making Cities Age-Friendly
Loud, chaotic, and sometimes difficult to navigate, you might not think that cities are the best place for seniors to live. But, hectic and crowded cities can be great for the elderly when they provide top-class and close medical care, accessible public transportation, parks, and in general — liveliness and activities.
The problem is that the countryside, and even suburbia, can be isolating. If an elderly person is unable to drive and there’s nothing walkable or accessible by public transportation, they’re stuck. This isolation isn’t just dangerous for their physical health, but their mental health too.
There’s an initiative now by the World Health Organization to create a network of “age friendly cities” that create policies and programs that include the aging. That means keeping the elderly in mind when it comes to creating bus routes — or making them accessible for that matter – and even just providing guides and information to the aging on what’s going on in the community around them. It also means getting the elderly involved in aspects of government that affect them — like asking them to join committees.
Moving Away from Elder Institutionalization
A “retirement home” is nowadays synonymous with a sterile institution where the elderly were, and still are, left to simply live out their final years. But, we have been seeing major strides in moving away from this model. Retirement communities, for one, provide just that — real communities for seniors to interact. They come in all forms — from stand-alone houses within gated communities to high rise apartment complexes.
But, we’re also seeing newer ideas. The Green House Project, for example, plays off of the idea of living at home — something that many elderly find unsustainable with age. The initiative helps put 10-12 people together in a house, to live and interact with one another. There is also care provided within the home.
The Green House Project has found that the bond that’s formed between the residents is not only close, it is much more familial. This is achieved by creating a living space that is like a real home, including bedrooms and a communal kitchen, and by encouraging activities like having everyone eat around the dining room table together.
At the same time, the elderly are able to come and go as they please, have a yard, their own room and bathroom, and can invite guests. In the end, what now seems obvious and simple is really proving to be a model that can be replicated in communities around the globe for both mental and physical wellbeing.
When you really think about it, the future of elderly living is here in front us. The only real problem is the slow adaption, or total lack thereof. Only time will tell if our communities are going to step up to the plate and enforce, integrate, and implement these initiatives.
Is there something you want to add to the conversation? Let us know in the comments below!