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How spending one night in a retirement home changed my perspective on seniors

Seniors are often placed in isolated enclaves and excluded from mainstream society. Writer David Wilson explores the alternatives during his stay in an enclave 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. 

This story originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of The Observer as a column under "Observations."  

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