The Age of Aging

What Will We Do When One Third of Us are 65 or Older? Village to Village Movement Tackles the Needs of Living at Home As Long As Possible

Roots

I remember ageism striking me right between the eyes, in Oaxaca, while I was climbing a pyramid at Monte Alban. Running, really. A silly sight from afar, trying to beat the veronica of the sun so I could get the “perfect” dusk shot with my Nikon.

Two elderly ladies on the side of the steps were selling beautiful weavings, something for which the Zapotec Indians of that region are known.

I got all huffy and puffy about their goods spread out on the steps. One of the 80-year-old women said to me in heavily accented Spanish, “ Calmate, joven. Despacio. En la juventud aprendemos, en la vejez que entendemos.”

Take it easy, youngster. Slow down. In youth we learn, in age we understand.

Silly me. I stopped, put my gear down and had a talk with both of them. It turns out that encounter 30 years ago resonates as I sit down and write a story on aging in place. Those two women spent ten hours a day selling handmade wares to tourists, and another two hours each day traveling back and forth to their small village to get to the pyramids. I spent two hours with them talking, watching the sunset and looking at their hands as they did on-the-spot weaving of bracelets known as pulsuras.

“Aging isn’t for the faint of heart” has been an adage I’ve heard all my life as a journalist and traveler, for sure. In Greece, in Vietnam, in Guatemala, in Spokane.

I hitchhiked from Nogales to Panama when I was 20. Backpacked across Europe when I was 23. Did a stint as dive master in the Yucatan when I was 30. Drove a motorcycle across (down) Vietnam when I was 36. Hiked the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua when I was 42.

Those Zapotec ladies have always been with me while on my “youthful adventures.” So, too, were the old corn farmers that I met in Huehuetenango. I watched as the sun rose on old fishermen in their 70s, in Vietnam, paddling out to sea in round dinghies. Or the 92-year-old professor of archaeology from Mexico City, I interviewed, out on a dig south of Pueblo.

Irony number one is that I am a baby boomer, and 10,000 of my cohorts turn 65 each day in this country.

  • Aging Facts:
    40 million citizens were over 65 in the 2010 Census
    69 million 65 year-olds and up will be citizens of the USA by 2030
    The 85-plus population will double by 2025

So, those declining birth rates and increasing lifespans will cause this country to deal with a hard cold fact – one in five of us will be 65 or older by 2030. Now, take a gulp for this next factoid.

  • One-third of the U.S. population by 2050 will be 65 or older.

Before we look at the aging in place movement around a Villages paradigm, a few words of wisdom around aging from our literary folk lift this issue poetically:

Age is a high price to pay for maturity. ~Tom Stoppard

The first half of life consists of the capacity to enjoy without the chance; the last half consists of the chance without the capacity. ~Mark Twain

The great secret that all old people share is that you really haven’t changed in seventy or eighty years. Your body changes, but you don’t change at all. And that, of course, causes great confusion. ~Doris Lessing

We do have to think of community in a new way, outside the confines of neighborhood boundaries and the built environment, though ten years ago WSU professor Bob Scarfo was already neck deep in the aging and planning realm and trying to tackle the what-to-do details around the built environment and mobility. Here, from a conference, are Scarfo’s words invoking a more cooperative and multidisciplinary approach to the problems facing the aging, their spouses and families and all those services necessary to give our honored citizens life worth living.

Successful and productive aging, the obesity epidemic and the built environment are areas of knowledge that employ similar language used by various professions,” Bob Scarfo, WSU landscape architecture professor, said kicking off a 2005 summer program on aging. “We share a common goal: outcomes that benefit the public health, safety and welfare. By putting a diverse set of professionals in the same room to understand our common language and common interests, we hope to identify practices born from collaboration that support aging well, obesity prevention and conservation of natural resources.

Pooling Resources and Collective IQ

The ideas around this topic are always heady when put into the vacuum of academia; however, “see, hear and speak no evil (problems)” is the traditional standard operating procedure (SOP) of American policy makers. The realities of how we’ve continuously put our collective head in the sand have not been lost by the Founder of Villages NW in Portland.

“I will not end up in a place where some 20 year-old attendant at 10:30 tells me that it’s now time to go play balloon bingo,” said Anne Andler at a recent house meet-up to get Portlanders interested in, and involved with, the Villages movement. Andler is Villages NW’s first executive director. She continues to serve on the Low/Moderate Income Committee and the Membership Committee of the national Village-to-Village Network, where her focus is on mentoring villages in formation and early development.

She calls herself a “village midwife.” She’s passionate about the aging issue wherever she goes, emphasizing her San Francisco Bay experience with folk at the county and state level there just not understanding that “this train is coming down the tracks quickly.” Andler was asking in 1972 why there was no plan in place for this huge number – 90 million baby boomers, the last of which were born in 1963 –that will be putting stresses on metro, county, state and national coffers.

Her concern is around dignity, self-actualization and quality of life for people aging, and none of the planners, policy makers, even agencies centered around aging were really talking about this train coming 65 miles an hour down the tracks. “Why? They didn’t know how they were going to pay for these services that year, let alone in the future,” says Andler. “So they just avoided talking about it.”

No Fountain of Youth Mumbo-jumbo

The fact is, our neighbor to the south, Oregon, has 190,000 people 65 or older and will have 400,000 by 2030. Not something printed on those “fulfill your skiing and kayaking inner self in Bend, Oregon” brochures. The Nike and Intel campuses are not drawing out-of-state and foreign-born techies to work there with the promo, “Oregon: almost a half million old folks but no place to put them.”

“Look, I talk to a lot of agencies around aging, as well as developers in the business of building retirement homes, and they have no big plans to build all these retirement homes,” says Andler.

The movement to stay in your neighborhood, specifically in your house or apartment, started in 2001 with help from the Harvard Law School. Boston’s Beacon Hill Village was the first, and now 150 villages have been organized around the country with another 150 in nascent development. There are several in the Seattle/Puget Sound area.

More than 25 people met at Rachel Mohlere’s house. She’s the vice president of NW Villages, but brings to the movement her real estate background and involvement with older adult homeowners and their families, as well as work with the Aligning Lifespan and Neighborhood Development project.

Both Andler and Mohlere conceptualized the Villages project for a spread out place like the Portland metroplex, as a hub and spoke design. The idea is bringing people from different distinct neighborhoods that may or may not have a history with their neighborhood councils like we have in Spokane into these communities of action. The hub and spoke design will enable Villages to develop in their natural neighborhood boundaries and be able to focus on programs – and not forced to go through the rigors of creating and maintaining nonprofit organizations while competing for funds with one another. The hub holds the 501(c)(3) for them all.

There is a membership cost that includes both a services and activities component for individual or households. The four-prongs of the non-profit Villages movement include:

  1. Established services in the area already in place for those people considered elderly or aged through the city, county, councils on aging and non-profits – a Village staff will coordinate and contact all those supports to assist people with all services, including the number one need, which is transportation.
  2. Volunteers within the Village – this is where people in the village with varying capabilities, abilities and knowledge bases can help fellow villagers with everything from getting the computer up and running to making it possible for folks to get to doctors’ appointments
  3. The third component is having venders vetted and on-line to give reduced services for the Villagers – the staff of the Village will take applications, look at their bonding credentials, insurance coverage and will conduct background checks.
  4. Finally, the Eastside Village in Portland, that just rolled out October 1st with some fanfare, like all Villages, has a social-activities component that gets members out for music, the arts, outdoors activities, you name it.

Who in the ‘We Are the 99 Percent’ Movement are Prepared for Retirement?

Many more women seem to be involved in the Villages movement, as a way to give back to their communities, and as Boomers, many were part of the Civil Rights-Social Justice movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, so they want to be part of a system around direct partnerships. Both Andler and Mohlere emphasize that women traditionally have fewer resources to draw from for retirement.

“If your retirement plan is your husband, you better hope he doesn’t die,” says Andler, with her wry sense of humor. “If it’s your kids, you better hope they don’t move. And, if it’s your friends, then you better hope they don’t become enemies.”

So what might be the top benefits of creating a village here in Spokane?

Here’s Mohlere’s pitch:

Ultimately, I think, it’s a way to mitigate the loneliness, isolation and fearful state that many older adults end up in living alone, and it also spares many people the option of ending up in a soul-crushing facility. But there are other tangibles – fewer re-admittances to hospitals that have discharged older adults back into their isolation. This is big for hospitals, as they are now penalized when someone goes home and lands back in the ER a day later. Often these people have no transportation to get their meds, and need basic help. The Village helps a lot.

The talk at September’s meet and greet included terms like egalitarian and economy of scale and collective bargaining power. This power in numbers and collective or communitarian spirit build a certain muscularity into a movement that does not need a bricks and mortar start-up, Mohlere told the group, ranging in age from early 30s to 65.

There are other forms of neighborhood systems that promote aging in place. NORCs– naturally occurring retirement communities – unfold by accident when, say, a couple sells and moves into a condo, thus, over time encouraging areas of a neighborhood to be a magnet for 55 year olds and older. The idea of aging and having the power and right to stay in place in order to make that passage through the natural steps of aging, even in the case of aging with memory challenges, is almost revolutionary in a culture that is so youth oriented.

Numbers Don’t Lie

Scarpo came to Vancouver a few years ago and talked about mobility challenges for the aging. Some of the numbers for Clark County around aging are interesting, and speak to an aging in place/Villages to Village movement afoot in the Vancouver metroplex. Andler is already setting up Clark County Villages  opportunities.

The Washington (State) Association of Area Agencies on Aging is not the most robust clearing house on the concepts around aging in place. Aging and Long Term Care of Eastern Washington is another portal into some of the nitty gritty of care and aging. But the self-empowerment issue tied to staying in one’s home, apartment or shared living situation is pretty non-existent in Eastern Washington. The fact is, however, there are not enough senior living places in Spokane County (and never will) to handle those daunting numbers seen above for Clark County.

Clark Co. Year

Total Households

Persons per Household

Senior Households

Non-senior Households

1980

68,750

2.76

11,036

57,664

1990

88,571

2.66

15,243

73,328

2000

127,208

2.69

23,131,

104,077

2024

225,602

2.59

67,681

157,921

If we had true affordable housing options and decent public transportation, we would have fewer people straddled with debt and two and three jobs just to break even.

The entire farm is being gambled by predatory financial, insurance and real estate empires that over time have destroyed the middle class and generations to follow.

As many humanitarians believe, a society is judged by how it treats its old, children and the less advantaged or fortunate. Imagine the isolation poverty and lack of transportation create.

Aging as a Strategic Policy

Age, aging and the shrinking percentage of young people and their strong backs and taxpayer pocketbooks have rattled the cages of both the conservatives and liberals, but the bottom line is that we do not “do” problem identification and problem solving well in the U.S. or most other supposedly First World Western cultures.

Global Aging is studied by governments, the CIA, think tanks and hundreds of other agencies, to understand what the fallout will be with an aging globe. Here, two points from conservative writers Richard Jackson, Neil Howe, Rebecca Strauss and Keisuke Nakashima, from their report, THE GRAYING OF THE GREAT POWERS: Demography and Geopolitics in the 21st Century.

 In the developing world, the transformation will have more varied consequences—propelling some countries toward greater prosperity and stability, while giving rise to dangerous new security threats in others.

In the developed world, the transformation will have sweeping economic, social and political consequences that could undermine the ability of the United States and its traditional allies to maintain security. The consequences can be divided into three main types: Changes in Demographic Size; Changes in Economic Performance; Changes in Social Mood.

Both Mohlere and Andler are self-described lefties who also love to engage in the geopolitical and philosophical when talking about aging, but the pragmatic also carries the day. Both say hospitals and Medicaid are looking at how health care costs will go down dramatically with effective aging in place systems, like the Villages concept, because patients will have cohesive, planned care in their homes and a system of volunteers checking up, assisting with care, and feeding both stomachs and spirits through those four big components of the Villages system.

Finally, as a journalist and teacher-student of communication, I find it interesting to end a piece on just what language means when dealing with aging versus evolving, or old versus mature. I asked Mohlere a simple question: What have you learned as an individual and as someone part of a community from your work on the Villages campaign?

She was adamant about how we couch things.

Language matters. If you call it, ‘Helping old people age in place,’ you lose all the folks who think they not old, and the adult kids who would give their eyeteeth if their parents would stop aging in place and move somewhere. Our culture thinks of and speaks of older adults at ‘seniors’ and makes them other than ‘regular’ adults. There’s intrinsic ageism and distancing. All of these things need to be addressed. We need help with branding. Also, city planners and funders don’t like the topic – it challenges their denial. They just want to hook it all to helping kids – much more sexy.

What a concept! People of all ages, all abilities, all economic classes, all backgrounds, all ethnicities, in a community where the bottom line is following one rule and one adage: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” . . . . And, “It takes a village to care for each person.”

For more on Villages to Village movement, visit VillagesNW or Village to Village.

• Article first appeared in Spokane Living Magazine.

Paul Haeder's new bio is about suspending all those credentials, all those titles, all those in-the-trench experiences he's acquired and worked hard on in his 64 years (2021): Novelist, essayist, journalist, social worker, college and K12 educator, environmental warrior. Terms and avocations more meaningless as cancel culture rises and rises from left and right insanity. Paul's book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years (now going on 16 years) of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his musings at LA Progressive. Read his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam now out, published by Cirque Journal. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.