If you are approaching later life, you have a huge advantage over the generations before you – an advantage that does not get nearly the attention it deserves. It is an advantage that can probably do more for your mental health than you realize.
I’m talking about the proliferation of options as to how and where to live. Only a generation or two ago, seniors who were on their own, either because they were widowed or divorced or had always been single, often looked at two options: moving back in with family (often grown children) or moving into a nursing home. Married seniors with health problems or other challenges often faced the same two choices.
For some seniors, those possibilities are still options. Some, for example, want to move in with family and are welcomed warmly. Others, though, want as much independence as they can muster, and even when they do need help, they are determined to avoid the nursing-home scene.
Some seniors are creating their own ways of living. As I talk to people about how they live and how they want to live, there is a particular story that comes up fairly often, and it seems to be told most often by women. They say that when they were younger, they had conversations with their friends about growing old in which they fantasized about sharing a home together or maybe just moving together to the same general community or neighborhood while continuing to have a home of their own. Some are approaching retirement and are actually acting on those fantasies.
Alongside all of the individual initiatives are more organized ways of re-envisioning ways of living in later life. One of the most ambitious attempts to develop and promote a model of shared living was founded by the geriatrician Dr. William Thomas, who calls himself “a nursing home abolitionist.” Thomas’s alternative to nursing homes is The Green House Project. Green Houses, in Thomas’s vision, are places where elders go to live and thrive and grow. A Green House includes only about eight to ten people, so that it is more like a family home than a mini-hospital. The small numbers mean that elders can get to know and care about each other as well as the people who care for them. Elders who live in a Green House have their own private bedroom and bathroom. In the open kitchen they all share, they can socialize and have the food they want prepared for them when they want it. Green Houses include inviting outdoor spaces such as yards and gardens that are easily accessible, and opportunities to participate in meaningful activities. They are long-term care homes that feel invigorating rather than depressing.
There are other options as well. As with so many things, those seniors who are more economically advantages have more choices than others. Some people taking the lead in innovating are concerned about those financial challenges and are trying to create living arrangements open even to those who are living on a very small budget.
The approach I expect to grow most rapidly is the “village” concept that allows seniors to “age in place” as long as possible. In Villages, seniors may pay a small fee to have access to a range of activities and services. A PBS story on the Beacon Hill Village, for example, notes that “services include social clubs, weekly exercise classes and lectures, transportation to doctors’ offices and grocery stores and access to reduced-fee home medical care and home repair services.”
All of these innovations have the potential to enrich physical health, social connections, and individual freedom and dignity. What could be better for mental health than that?