Neighbors…in retirement communities
My favorite aunt had lived in New York City for fifty years. She loved New York, especially the theater and dance that were available there. In her youth, she’d been incredibly generous, inviting me to spend weekends with her. My first theater experience was a performance of My Fair Lady, with Rex Harrison and Julie Andews on stage, and from age 8 on, I was her frequent guest.
As my aunt reached age 75, she began to have difficulties in her New York apartment: access to groceries meant a trek across a very busy, multi-lane street. Managing her apartment became more of a challenge. So she made the decision to move to a retirement community that offered the full range of care milieus– independent or assisted living, and nursing home care.
At first, independent living worked out well. She made many new friends, and volunteered in the local schools. She took advantage of the community outings for theater and ballet and museums. She hosted afternoon teas in her apartment.
But as she aged, arthritis and congestive heart failure began to take their toll on her mobility. When I called her one day, she told me she’d been told she could no longer go on the bus trips because she needed too much assistance from the driver. The other passengers, delightful though they were, could not help her since they, too, were in their eighties and frail.
My solution was to take off from work on those days when there was something my aunt wanted to do. If her friends were going to the theater, I made sure she got there, too. If she wanted to host a tea, but was no longer mobile enough to make and pour tea, I went and helped her host 4-6 friends. When she wanted to visit her best friend on the other coast, I traveled with her so that the two 85-year olds could see each other one last time.
The retirement community certainly enabled her to live independently for another decade and a half. But the trade-off was that because the population was so homogeneous, there were no neighbors who could really help in the simple ways they can in the larger community, And as soon as she was no longer able to function at a wholly independent level, the retirement community became perhaps more restricting than her life in New York City had become before she’d moved.
I found this very upsetting. She had paid out a hefty sum of money expecting to have her needs met in this continuing care community. Yet the only needs met there were the most basic ones of food and shelter. Residents there who had no local friends or family were at an even higher risk of the isolation, depression, and loneliness we know to be issues for this age group since there were no members of other age groups there, and limited access to the rest of the local area. While I loved being able to give back to her in the same ways she had given to me, I was profoundly moved by the limitations of that model for aging.