For the past eight years I have been writing about the issues that all of us older people face as we move through the aging process. On April 6, 2010, I published my first article in the Newton TAB which serves our city of close to 90,000. Over the years, editors have been terrific advocates for the concerns of seniors. I have been fortunate because readers from all over Newton tell me how much they appreciate my personal and real approach in telling what it is like to get older. I write from my experience and not a theoretical perspective. I want people to know that there is someone who really understands.
My very first article was “The Meaning of Aging in Place.” I have re-read it and reflect on what has changed and what has stayed the same in the past eight years. My main reference point is my own city, but I believe that what is happening here is happening all over the country. I started the 2010 article with my age – 71 – acknowledging that I was just one of many who were in this ongoing stage of life. I see two big changes. First, I am now 79 and, second, the percent of people in Newton age 60+ has increased from 21% (about 18,000) in 2010 to an estimated 27% in 2016 (about 24,000). Both the City and I are meeting predictions; we are both getting older.
Back in 2010 and still in 2018 there is back and forth chattering about the meaning of aging-in- place. Then and now I contend that aging-in-place is not a one-time, forever-after decision to stay where we are. Living is a fluid, ever-evolving process and along with that comes inevitable changes, including where we live. Many of us want to stay in long-term homes, but numerous others want to move somewhere that is easier to navigate – apartments and condos with one floor living – and eliminate worries about faulty plumbing, stairs, and shoveling. A few years ago, Newton’s Council on Aging estimated that if only one-quarter of older seniors wanted to downsize, the city was about 1000 units short of meeting the need. There has been some progress in developing one-floor-living buildings. However, because of various zoning restrictions, ordinances, and community “not-in-my-backyard” attitudes, these developments will only meet a fraction of the need. The total number of new units is about 228 and for all ages. With a 6000 increase in 60+ between 2010 and 2018, we are clearly losing ground in downsizer-friendly residences. Long-term residents are leaving the city because they can’t find appropriate housing.
Given that so many older people seem to want to stay in homes that may not be safe, our Council on Aging has developed a safety checklist and housing criteria to help people figure out how to make their current residences as safe as possible.
I prefer to think about aging-in-place more in terms of community. We know that often people want to stay here because it’s a great place. Yet, we know more than we did eight years ago and see that many seniors are experiencing isolation and loneliness. It is easy to be isolated by living alone in an over-sized house. This is why community is so important. We all need family, friends, neighbors, and local and city agencies for us to stay connected to the world. There are tons of ways to do that, but it may be hard to know where to look. Local Departments of Senior Services and Councils on Aging have information and can point people in the right direction. All one needs to do is call.
The needs are great, but one big barrier is that some of us won’t admit 1) we’re older and 2) we need help. This attitude can be risky, especially if someone is alone in a house and no one knows we are there. Simply acknowledging aging can lead to positive connections and progress.
Finally, in 2010 I used the term “Livable” – e.g. Age-friendly. We have made progress in awareness and action about what this means. In 2016 Newton, applied for and was accepted into AARP/World Health Organization Age-friendly Network. This network represents a global acknowledgement that the whole world is getting older and that there will never again be more young people than elders. There is a dramatic, universal demographic shift that is verified from data from countless countries.
The big question is what to do about it. What can we do to help ourselves as individuals and our communities to build places that serve and respect seniors? Here in Newton, our Council on Aging has structured itself into action teams for housing, transportation, community engagement, and communication strategies to let residents know what’s available and the progress Newton is making towards an all-age friendly city. We have made strides, but to be genuinely all age-friendly, we have a ways to go. We are hard at work.