UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds


Enclaves of the elderly

By David Wilson

A couple of months ago, I did something I’d never done before but might do a lot of in years to come: I spent a night in a retirement home.

My wife and I were helping a family member who lives in the facility move to a new unit. It was a two-day job, and we needed a place to stay. The local hotels were full, so we asked if the retirement home had a unit we could rent for the night. It did. The room turned out to be a pleasant alternative to a hotel — cheaper and much, much quieter.

As retirement homes go, this place was decidedly upscale. Its focal point is a four-storey atrium where residents gather to talk, read, work on puzzles and, yes, play shuffleboard bathed in abundant natural light. I spent some time there too, trying to read but mostly chatting with a succession of residents who seemed drawn to me because I was new and different.

Their eagerness to engage me underscored something that’s always troubled me about retirement homes: they’re full of old people. I don’t mean to sound facetious or derogatory. There’s nothing wrong with being elderly — I plan to be old someday myself. But there is something wrong with herding the elderly into enclaves that are largely cut off from the diversity and rhythms of the outside world. Limiting old people to a steady diet of other old people only seems to make the elderly older.

There’s no law that mandates this, only a strange, deep-rooted cultural assumption that the elderly don’t really belong in the mainstream. It’s a prescription for isolation and loneliness, and a host of well-documented physical and mental-health consequences.

I appreciate that institutional settings are a practical way to care for large numbers of people who can no longer care for themselves. But surely there are approaches that promise a better quality of institutional life. It’s not as if there aren’t precedents. Perhaps the most shining example is the Humanitas retirement home in Deventer, Netherlands. Responding to a chronic shortage of university housing and government caregiving cutbacks, Humanitas developed a program that provides six students with a free room as long as each spends 30 hours a month socializing with the older residents. The program has inspired similar efforts elsewhere in the Netherlands. “I think that the students influence the whole tone of the conversation here,” CEO Gea Sijpkes told an Australian public broadcaster. “So that it’s not only about death, sickness and old age, but also about youth, about parties, about girlfriends.”

In Spain, the city of Barcelona and local universities piloted a project to house students in the homes of seniors. It has since expanded to 27 other cities. In the United States, a number of colleges have built retirement facilities on or near their campuses, encouraging residents to audit courses or to volunteer at affiliated hospitals, libraries and museums. In Denmark, seniors taking part in government-sanctioned co-housing programs design where and how they live, relying on mutual support and shared professional caregivers for day-to-day needs. The first co-housing community for Canadian seniors opened five years ago in Saskatoon.

How we house the elderly reflects how society perceives old age generally. Don’t be surprised if attitudes begin to change as boomers start to reach their 80s: more than any generation in history, boomers have insisted on living well; they’re going to insist on aging well too, and will demand new and innovative approaches to elder care.

Not that the folks I met during our recent sleepover were aging badly. They seemed in reasonably good spirits. But I came away wondering what’s wrong with being both old and genuinely happy. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
Promotional Image


David Wilson%


by David Wilson

Outrage is the new normal

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Stolen Mother

by Observer Staff

The daughter and adoptive mother of one of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women share their story

Promotional Image


October 2017

Fall from grace

by Justin Dallaire

Don Hume was a United Church minister nearing retirement. Then he tried crack cocaine.


September 2017


by Jane Dawson

Restless longing is at the core of the human condition, urging us onward through life. What happens when it veers off course?


July 2017

From far and wide

by Various Writers

Meet 11 immigrants who are putting down new roots


October 2017

A tale of two cancers

by Catherine Gordon

One year after the writer discovered she had breast cancer, her sister in California received the same diagnosis. They both recovered, but their experiences were worlds apart.


June 2017

Resisting genocide

by Sally Armstrong

In August 2014, ISIS attacked Iraq’s Yazidis, slaughtering thousands and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery. Today, the survivors are fighting for their ancient way of life.


April 2017

Dear Grandkids

by Various Writers

Six acclaimed Canadian authors write letters from the heart

Promotional Image