Woodcut from Thomas More’s Utopia, 1516
In the mid-1980’s my grandparents decided to move from their single-family home to Casa de las Campanas, a large, all-inclusive retirement community in the California desert north of San Diego. They chose this particular location because it offered what the retirement industry calls “a continuum of care.” They could live long and be healthy in their own apartment, but skilled nursing was right downstairs. Plus there were several swimming pools, recreation centers, libraries, dining halls, and commissaries.
There was a tradeoff that my grandparents made for living in a community where residents never really needed to leave: Casa de las Campanas was hard to get to, especially for family members and friends who didn’t drive. My visits from college to see my beloved grandparents required an all-day travel ordeal of three bus transfers after a long airplane flight to their garrison-like desert retreat. When I would visit, strangers would gaze at me with expressions of longing. I sometimes wondered whether my grandparents had enlisted all their neighbors in a conspiracy to stare at me with guilt-tripping eyes, as if to ask silently, “How long are you planning to stay?”
There are some good reasons for young people to choose not to live near their own aging relatives – and for the elderly to choose to live away from their younger family. Atul Gawande writes about his grandfather, the patriarch in his father’s village in India, who lived until he was 110: “He was supported and surrounded by his family at all times, and he was revered—not in spite of his age but because of it” (Being Mortal, p. 14). The tasks of caring for the patriarch in the traditional way that Gawande describes require at least one person of a younger generation – usually a daughter – to stay at home, foregoing other personal and professional aspirations. And so Gawande’s father did what many of our own immigrant forebears did. He left home. “The prosperity of whole countries,” Gawande adds, “depends on [children’s] willingness to escape the shackles of family expectations and follow their own path” (Being Mortal, p. 19).
Just as modern adult children leave their parents, so too do modern aging parents leave their children. Paula Span, who writes the “New Old Age” column for the New York Times, notes that mid-20th century prosperity gave many older people the freedom to live apart from their adult children: “The proportion of older widows living with children declined from about 60 percent [in 1940] to 20 percent by the 1990 census. Did Americans stop loving their mothers in 1940? No, but their parents began receiving checks from a just-enacted New Deal program called Social Security and no longer had to rely financially on their families” (NYT, Feb. 17, 2018, “America at Home: Grandparents in the Attic, Children in the Basement”).
It’s not that all my grandparents’ fellows at Casa de las Campanas had consciously decided not to live near their children and grandchildren. Rather, they had been lured there by other goals they justifiably desired: security, amenities, and camaraderie with people who shared their taste for tomato aspic. Having listened to the sales pitch and focused on one set of goals, they failed to realize what it would really feel like not to live around younger people.
Economists tell us that the prosperity Americans experienced in the 20th Century – the prosperity that supported the rationale of planned communities such as Casa de las Campanas and enabled my grandparents to buy into such a lifestyle – was a historical aberration, a blip. Remember those bumper stickers we saw on RVs in the 1990’s? “We’re spending our grandchildren’s inheritance.” That’s actually what they were doing.
These days a reverse trend is beginning to push the generations back together. Not only are young adults moving back in with their parents, but the grandparents are moving in, too. Both migrations are driven by economic necessity. According to Span, “A decade or so ago, as demographers began reporting an uptick in shared and multigenerational housing, the trend again looked to be economically driven, this time by the Great Recession.” Like it or not, economic necessity may bring us closer to our children and grandchildren than our grandparents were to their children, or to us.
Something similar might happen – and, I believe, should happen – in conventional retirement communities. A year ago, Seivah’s Facebook page featured a video published by the World Economic Forum about a residence in the Netherlands where university students and older people, some of the latter with dementia, live together in a small housing complex. The students work thirty hours caring for their elders in exchange for free rent. Right now in Westchester County, NY where I live, a coalition of governmental agencies and NGO’s has begun exploring similar co-housing arrangements in order to address what they see as a looming housing crisis for both our elders and young people.
Alzheimer’s and related dementias are the costliest chronic, terminal illnesses in America. The expense comes not from drugs or surgeries, but from the price of care itself. But it may turn out that the sheer expense of providing dementia care, combined with a scarcity of housing options for seniors in general may produce some silver linings. Look closely at the faces in this video about the Dutch experiment:
You’ll see facial expressions revealing the psychosocial benefits of having young and old people living together—far different from the wistful looks people at Casa would send my way. Both young people and elders thrive emotionally and spiritually—and they do better financially—when they are together in a symbiotic community.
On a parallel track, many dementia day and residential programs in both America and Europe are achieving good health outcomes by inviting nursery schools to share their space. Not only does this pairing optimize resources (finger foods for everyone!) , but it also creates intergenerational warmth. It may turn out that our efforts to deal with some of the worst economic challenges presented by dementia may define the cutting edge of our efforts to deal with a problem of isolation, which affects nearly all older people, not just those with cognitive impairment.
I recently heard the term “intentional community” applied to a lifestyle retirement village. When I usually think of intentional communities, I usually imagine utopian projects like the 19th-century Oneida Community and Shaker villages or the communes of the 1960’s. The builders of these places sought to live with one another as authentically as was humanly possible. The vision that led my late grandparents to their own City on the Hill wasn’t so lofty. They wanted convenience and menu options. I suppose that for people who had become adults in the Great Depression, the all-inclusive retirement village seemed like the fulfillment of some lofty destiny, something spiritual in its own right.
By contrast, the retirement fantasies which my friends and I are beginning to bat around are decidedly more improvisational, and more downscale: a refurbished strip mall in the suburbs, with an abandoned Chick-Fil-A repurposed as our communal dining room; a circle of trailers in a field in Oregon. Whether it’s “intentional” thinking or not, most of our musings take into account the likelihood that we will be living more densely and with fewer private amenities than did our grandparents.
And we imagine ourselves living near, and even with, young people who are not necessarily our own grandchildren. We don’t even try to guess where our own children will end up. But we know at the very least that we will want to live around younger people, even if those young people come into our lives as the unintended consequence of economic scarcity.