Redefining Prosperity

December 7, 2010

 

Live long and prosper

Vulcan salute

If I were to fulfill Mr. Spock’s blessing to “live long and prosper”, I guess I would die a rich old man.

Somehow, however, that dream feels a little hollow. Yet, it’s at the core of the American economy, right? We are told that we depend on people getting rich to create the jobs that fuel increased consumption and continued economic growth. And staying young forever is, of course, the desired state of every baby boomer consumer, according to Madison Avenue.

I have a growing suspicion that the prospects for every American to enjoy riches are as dim as the prospect that we can all live to 120. Acknowledging the reality of one’s own mortality is the first step to understanding what it means to age well. Acknowledging the reality of our economic limits can be the first step to a new definition of prosperity.

As this year’s fabulous Community Matters ’10 conference was held in Denver, I had an opportunity to meet planners, government officials, and resident activists from multiple small towns in the Mountain West and High Plains. Many of these communities are struggling economically, often due to the decline of traditional  industries (mining, logging, ranching and farming) in the face of worldwide competition. One common consequence of this trend is the departure of young people from their home communities and the subsequent increase in older age-density, creating what Dace Kramer has referred to as “naturally occurring retirement regions” (NORR’s). This has been accompanied by an influx of new retirees seeking amenities not typically provided by sunbelt retirement communities – incredible natural beauty, skiing, hiking, recreational ranching, etc. As one might guess, local economies are shifting to a “service” base as the population ages, due to both aging in place and in-migration.

While recognizing aging is a major driver of population and economic change in the New West, I have come to realize that, with respect to local economy, it’s impossible, better said, impractical, to discuss aging without reference to youth, and vice versa. If people are to age well in the New West, they need robust youth to provide services of all kinds. If communities are to provide opportunities for youth that enable them to stay put, they need the monetary investment of elders.

Seems like a simple dollars and cents issue. But it goes deeper. In the practical sense, attachment to place requires dollars and cents. For a young person, it equates to a job. For an elder, it often equates to cost of living. The converse applies to both. In a deeper sense, attachment to place is not a monetary issue. We are attached to a place because we feel we belong there. We know the place and it knows us. We nurture the place and it nurtures us.

When we reach the right place, we don’t need more because we have enough. We have loving relationships. We have the sense of fulfillment that comes from the beauty of the quiet order around us balanced by the sense of delight that comes from the unpredictable and creative spirit of nature and of youth. To appreciate what we have means we must regularly view our place from the outside, which can simply involve embracing those strangers who are our future neighbors, friends and family.

When we reach the right place, we are prosperous. Yet, we may very well be spending less, not more, which in the current scheme is anathema to our American economy. We are told that, without wealth-creation, America will become a “second-class economy.” The “new normal” means a lower standard of living. If that’s true, is this bad? These days, both young people and elders are the new pioneers in the so-called lower standard of living. Should we not notice that they are discovering the difference between standard of living and quality of life? Should we not be listening to elders who can teach us how they survived hard times and to youth who can teach us how to live more lightly on the planet?

Addendum:

Through the generous support of the Orton Family Foundation, and others, the participants in the Community Matters ’10 conference came together to explore and develop a new “heart and soul” approach to community planning. This approach is based on the belief that a slavish adherence to growth in every direction threatens the heart and soul of our communities – the things that, in the end, attach us to place and define who we are. Economic growth and quality of life are not necessarily antithetical. But a corporation is not a person (despite the Supreme Court decision) and capital is, too often, not attached to place. Planning that reveals and promotes the heart and soul of a place is essential and, indeed, many local companies are loyal to their communities and help define heart and soul. Storytelling and story sharing are critical tools for “heart and soul” practitioners. For a wealth of connections to this growing and exciting area of community planning and activism, visit the Orton website at: http://www.orton.org

Spend some time with the site and be sure to look for the Heart and Soul Community Planning Principles.


The Deep Meaning of Home

November 10, 2010

Attention to the deep meaning of home takes us to a kind of figurative commons, where we can have a serious discussion of the ubiquitous phrase “aging in place.”

For many practitioners and elders as well, aging in place has traditionally been equated with aging in one’s current residence – be it house or apartment. In fact, this is precisely the meaning taken in the AdvantAge Initiative survey in Indiana, which asked 5,000 older Hoosiers whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “What I’d really like to do is stay in my current residence for as long as possible.” Moreover, 94% of Hoosiers 60+ agreed with that statement! Clearly, staying put is the preferred choice for the vast majority of older adults in Indiana, and elsewhere. Our ethnographic research on the meaning of home in Bloomington offers some clues as to why people feel so strongly about the issue.

Home is a deep concept, far more significant than “house.” In the Bloomington research we encountered individuals who have lived in the same house for over 75 years! Imagine the sediments of memory that have been laid down over such a period of time. It requires a virtual archaeology of memory to peel back the deep meaning of a life in such a place. These memories, good and bad, are codified in the physical contents of the place. As she walks through the house, the owner walks, again, through life. Photos, furniture stains, knick knacks, postcards, window vistas, even dents in the woodwork signify and embody important events, episodes, and individuals in one’s life. How could one be expected to easily leave behind the door jamb marked by pencil with the advancing height of one’s children?

Home is a physical support. Over time, home and body coalesce, a hand in glove. We can walk through our home with our eyes closed because we maintain its physical representation within our body. This is very comforting. Managing the home (sometimes trivialized as homemaking) anchors daily life, provides markers for our temporal experience, and provides cues and incentives to keep our body and mind active.

Home is a financial cushion. For older homeowners (87% of older Hoosiers), the home is often THE primary financial asset. According to Michael Hurd of the RAND Corporation, home values during the current financial crisis dropped somewhere between 10% and 33% (according to different surveys). One can understand why, these days, older persons might be reluctant to tap their equity through the sale of their home.

Home is an aesthetic. You design its appearance for self-satisfaction and display to others. The aesthetic reflects your own sense of self just as importantly as does your clothing and your car.

Home is a social base. When you are home, it’s your territory, your turf. You control who enters. When you are home you are at the node of a social network of friends, neighbors and family. Home is a launching pad for connections with the immediate neighborhood and the wider community. This is why it’s so important to get out on the front porch and make it to the mailbox. (More on that later.)

With all these things in play, the home becomes a mirror for the self. It represents you to yourself and, as such, provides a constant reminder of your uniqueness and contributions to your family, your neighborhood, your community. Is it any wonder why someone would want to stay put?

What practitioners, family members, friends and neighbors know, however, is that staying put is not always the best solution if it results in social isolation, depression or unmanageable risks to health and wellbeing, notwithstanding the desires of an elder; and particularly so when the elder’s judgment is clouded by dementia.

Practically speaking, this “tension” between staying put or moving on often results in conversations and negotiations around “acceptable risks.” In fact, dichotomizing the choices as one or the other can be non-productive. Better to openly discuss the adaptations necessary to accomplish either goal. Staying put, indeed, does not mean “not adapting”. There are many adaptations we all likely need to make just to stay put. It’s not black and white – change or no change.

Acknowledging the complexity and difficulty of staying put, in light of the deep attachment to place, was one secret to the success of a home modification initiative created by residents, leaders, and providers for a NORC (naturally occurring retirement community) neighborhood in the little town of Linton, Indiana, population 5,000, in the spring of 2009. Having received a grant to spend 18 months assessing needs and building relationships with and among seniors in the neighborhood, the NORC leadership determined that improving mobility, broadly defined, should be a priority. The group wisely inferred that mobility in the home itself should be a starting point for any effort to assist elders to connect in the community.

Knowing that a foundation of trust was essential, a well-known and beloved community member (Crystal Woods) was hired to introduce the concept of home modification and repair to neighborhood seniors.  Senior members of the NORC advisory group began talking about the project with their neighbors. A few older residents consented to a “home safety” check by Crystal. This provided Crystal an opportunity to initiate conversations about possible things that could be done in the home to make it more comfortable or safe. Additional visits were provided by nurses from the only home care agency in the community. Local, trusted contractors were then introduced into the home by and with Crystal to begin estimating jobs. Budgets were developed for each project, without assuming that every recommendation would be either necessary or approved by the elder and their adult children (who would only be invited into the conversation at the request of the elder). When a handful of projects were ready to propose, the neighborhood seniors on the advisory committee were empowered to select what could be offered to each homeowner, given the overall project budget available ($45,000). Soon, contractor work began and it was revealing to see the contractors themselves developing close relationships with their customers, often doing more than the job required -all closely shepherded by Crystal, from beginning to end. Once a few seniors were “hooked” they told their friends and, within a period of four months, 19 homes were modified or repaired, several with significant improvements such as new bathroom floors and fixtures, new assistive features, ramps, and handrails!

This is what I call a “down home” solution to a major community challenge. And I use the word home in the best sense of the term.

Note: I hope you enjoy reading my blog. Your thoughts and additions to the conversation thread are most welcome. You can reply publicly right here on the blog. For additional reading on the meaning of home I suggest checking out: Graham Rowles, Claire Cooper Marcus, Wendell Berry, Scott Russell Sanders, Gaston Bachelard, and others. These authors are acknowledged and the ideas explored in more depth in the chapter entitled Being and Dwelling in Old Age, in my book Elderburbia: Aging with a Sense of Place in America (Praeger 2009). For a discussion on the sense of home and place in long term care facilities, see my chapter entitled Homebodies: Voices of Place in a North American Community, in my edited volume Gray Areas: Ethnographic Encounters with Nursing Home Culture (SAR Press 2003).

In Indiana, we are working towards some state legislation called Hoosier Communities for a Lifetime. At the end of November, I am presenting a two day workshop on communication and dementia. For info about these things and more, just click back to the website at www.agingindiana.org

In October, I enjoyed the opportunity to participate in an amazing conference – Community Matters ’10. When I get a chance, I’ll blog a bit about the growing movement towards “heart and soul” planning.

Till then,

Phil


From Linton to LaGrange, and New York City along the way

April 27, 2010

The Clearview Gardens Housing Coop in Queens could fit the entire population of LaGrange, Indiana within its complex, with room to spare. LaGrange, Indiana (pop. about 3,000), Linton, Indiana (pop. about 5,000) and Clearview Gardens (pop. about 4,500) are worlds apart along the rural-urban continuum, but next-door neighbors when it comes to their desire to enable elders to age in place. April travels to all three sites proved to me that there are some basic commonalities driving the aging in community movement. The vast majority of seniors do want to stay put, no matter where they live; the built environment provides major challenges; grass roots creativity may be the road to the future.

In Linton, Indiana, older citizens are taking to the streets in golf carts, saving lots of money and challenging traditional notions of transportation. Our on- line survey of mobility issues in Linton barely made it in time to help inform Mayor Tom Jone’s decision to sign a new ordinance supporting but regulating the use of golf carts in town. The survey results suggested a majority of citizens approve of the growing trend, while being very much in favor of regulations around public safety. Among 239 respondents to the on-line survey, 48 were current users of golf carts to get around. Another 109 respondents agreed they will consider using a golf cart in the next ten years. Wisely, the city of Linton is getting ready! Visit www.agingindiana.org  for the survey results. 

Linton, Indiana on-line survey prize winners, Mayor Tom Jones, NORC leaders (Daily World, T. Ferree photo)

In LaGrange, Indiana, grass roots creativity found its expression in a local group of citizens concerned about elders being stuck in their homes due to mobility limitations. With the leadership of local contractor Dave Clark, a small group of folks rounded up money and supplies to establish a “ramps program” enabling 19 older and disabled citizens to get in and out of their homes with ease. In a smart twist on the usual approach, this group decided to build the ramps in sections that could be easily dismantled and reassembled as needed.

LaGrange Aging in Place Committee members ready to greet summit participants

The Clearview Gardens Cooperative Housing project dates to 1949, when the first buildings were thrown up for returning veterans, who paid $50 a room to own their units – units that now have a price tag in the $250K range! Over the decades, continued building resulted in a project that covers 88 acres and houses nearly 4,500 individuals. With aging in place, naturally, there are over 1,200 seniors living in the community. This concentration of elders was the reason that three community leaders, several years ago, sought and received designation and funding to create a formal NORC – naturally occuring retirement community. NORC funding has enable the seniors to carve out valuable community space on the site and contract with the local YMCA for a NORC supportive services program. The wonderfully talented and dedicated staff of the program (two social workers and a nurse, primarily) work closely with residents to identify and respond to individual needs as well as create a broad array of communityprograms such as screenings, cultural offerings, and healthy aging activities. Their current grant through the Administration on Aging Community Innovations for Aging in Place project, administered in the city by the Dept. of  Aging, will enable the provision of evidence-based chronic disease self-management programs.

Despite the resilience and experience of the residents and the creativity of the staff, some pretty major challenges loom ahead – there is no internal transporation on the site and every single building is fronted by several stairs. Half of the units on the site are second story. I asked one lovely lady what she would do when (oops…if) she should develop a problem with … Not letting me finish my sentence, she asserted “That won’t happen!”  While I admire her grit, I have to wonder how realistic she is about the future. And even if her assertion comes true, as I certainly wish, the basic inaccessibility of the entire project is like the elephant in the room. Some creative thinking will have to come forth, along with some big bucks, I imagine. But, like the Linton seniors taking personal transportation into their own hands, I suspect the Clearview elders will figure it out.

Here's my fellow traveler Duane Etienne, CEO Emeritus of CICOA Aging and In Home Services, at the entrace to Clearview Gardens.


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