In last Friday’s New York Times, there was an op ed piece by Susan Jacoby entitled “Real Life Among the Old Old”, which presents a sobering view of aging. Based on her family experience, Ms. Jacoby emphasizes that old age isn’t pretty, shouldn’t be romanticized and cannot be manipulated as cosmetic ads promise. She points to the tendency among baby boomers, who are expecting to live longer than prior generations, to be in denial over the inevitable body/mind limitations that come with being “really old old.”
Ms. Jacoby makes some excellent points, particularly as she urges everyone to plan for their senior years with their eyes wide open. However, I think there’s something in between the denial and resignation she presents. In fact, I witness it on a daily basis. Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly (JCHE), provides non-sectarian independent senior housing in Boston. Our 1,300 low-income seniors are on average age 80 and tend to remain at JCHE for over 10 years. Many of these individuals have had difficult lives, contending with the enormous challenges of wars, economic downturns and religious persecution.
Yet, for the most part, the majority of JCHE residents would describe their current lives positively. They point to the security they feel living in an emotionally supportive environment. They are not burdened by fears that their rents will soar beyond affordability. Their apartments are physically set up to be manageable for their daily needs. The availability of sensitively trained maintenance staff reduces the fear of living in an unsafe surrounding. They don’t need to contend with the loneliness that strikes as friends move away from the neighborhood or suburban living is unworkable once driving is no longer an option. In our residences, there is always a neighbor around for connection and conversation. There is transportation to provide linkage to the wider community. We have staff available to navigate the complex systems like social security and health insurance that can cause excessive frustration.
What I find most impressive at JCHE is the realization that once these stresses are reduced, lives are immeasurably improved. Because they don’t need to be consumed with simply surviving, many residents re-direct their energy into amazingly productive and enriching pursuits. We have seniors who take up painting in their 80’s, become involve in local and regional politics, and engage in fitness programs to build strength and prevent falls. On any given day, there are chess games, computer training, book clubs, language classes and social gatherings. A team of residents goes to a Boston elementary school twice a week to tutor children to improve reading skills. Over 100 seniors annually work with first year students from Tufts School of Medicine who are honing their patient relationship abilities. The possibilities are endless.
As Ms. Jacoby suggests, genetics and luck will be major determinants in shaping what our own 80s and 90s will look like. There are no miracle products to stave off the inevitable. But there are housing alternatives, like JCHE, that are designed to maximize our ability to engage in life. We need more of them for sure. Boomers take note: now is the time to design and create options that will enable many of us to find some connection, purpose and “real life” in the decades ahead.
As always, please send me an email with your comments.