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How to Age Alone - An ‘Elder Orphan’ Challenges Us to Engage
Posted in: Aging Well
The Asbury team recently sat down with Carol Marak, editor of SeniorCare.com and “elder orphan.” Carol is passionate about the changes communities must make to help those who are aging — and aging alone — age well.
“As a society, are we prepared to serve the scores of older adults who will eventually need some level of care at home?” Carol asked in a Huffington Post blog in September. This month, she discusses three major challenges facing seniors today and offers a challenge to us all as we head into this holiday season.
Engaging in Community
Asbury: So much advice for helping us age focuses on home safety. But sitting safely in your home — alone or with a spouse — leads to isolation and all of its accompanying health consequences. What can our nation do to make it easier for seniors to remain active and engaged in their community?
Carol: It really comes down to three things. I’m planning a move next year that will help position me to take care of myself and enjoy life for as long as possible, and these three issues are factoring heavily into my search.
- First, you have to give people who are living in suburbs or rural areas the means to get out without driving.
- This calls for more widespread and convenient public transportation, which is another key factor in aging independently.
- Finally, we need to build walkable communities with affordable housing and infrastructure such as sidewalks and parks that encourage walking. We know we need to be more active. It’s not healthy for us to be sedentary.
Suburbs Pose a Challenge
I live in a typical suburb with houses that allow people to park in their garage and head inside without ever seeing a neighbor. There are no sidewalks. In my search for a new home, I’m leaning heavily toward Dallas. That city has put resources into public transportation and its downtown. There are lots of apartments that are close to shops and restaurants and that encourage an active lifestyle. I will be close to colleges where I can take classes.
For older adults, staying engaged requires easy access to public areas like libraries, stores and places to volunteer or take part in senior-specific events. When you’re in an urban area or mixed-use communities, you have more opportunities.
Where housing for seniors is located is a major issue. It would be nice to see assisted and senior-living housing being built in urban areas, so you can be connected to the larger community and stay more engaged without having to drive.
And then, there’s the fact that just over five percent of all seniors in the United States live in assisted living and nursing homes. Are there housing choices for seniors who don’t need or can’t afford those options but who may need some assistance?
Advocating for Seniors
Asbury: How do we get our nation’s leaders to focus on these issues when financial resources are so tight?
Carol: I think you have a spokesperson for seniors at the city level — someone who promotes the value of seniors and advocates for them, and who is looking for connections that could be made between seniors and other community organizations and constituencies. City officials and the local Office on Aging need to create collaborative teams.
How about creating a daycare or preschool center in a senior center? How much fun would that be to volunteer doing that? How about linking a senior center or senior housing community to a school that needs after-school or tutoring support?
Pictured: the Gaithersburg Beloved Community Initiative.
And we also need to get busy advocating for ourselves. I’ve attended City Council meetings in Austin and Waco and I rarely see representation of the senior population at those meetings. We need to step outside of AARP and start being more vocal and active at the local level. Giving more tax credits and incentives to developers who build affordable housing for seniors is another tool that cities and states could use.
A focus of the Milken Institute is identifying and building cities for successful aging. They created a program called The Mayor’s Pledge, which asks city leaders to drive more age-friendly designs and focus on creating senior centers and transportation to get people out. They’ve only had 140 mayors sign up, which is a really pathetic number.
Opening Your Family
Asbury: A lot of the issues around aging in America require resources and collaboration between government and many other parties. What can individuals do?
Carol: As an elder orphan, I tend to focus on the challenge of aging alone. I think there’s a tendency in us to think about our family as a tight unit, and we kind of stick to ourselves when it comes to offering our time and help and for holidays, for instance. Why don’t we try to engage people who are living alone and try to adopt them into our family? What if we knew that 20 percent of seniors who lived in our town were living alone? What if a church created an outreach group for its senior members?
I try to be really cognizant of this with my neighbors. I invite them in for coffee or ask if they’d like to come with me if I’m going out to lunch. On our Elder Orphans Facebook Group, some of us have started a list of names of people to call daily, and we’ve also started a list of people to send holiday cards to. It’s something small, but it can have a mighty impact.
Asbury: What are the goals of SeniorCare.com?
Carol: We want to be a resource for seniors, families and public officials. Our Senior Guides have senior demographics and age-related data for virtually every town in America. When you’re a city official and you’re trying to have a conversation around seniors living in a community, you’ve got to have data.
Author Bio: Carol lives in Waco, Texas, and studied at the USC Davis School of Gerontology. She is an aging alone advocate who came to this issue because she is “an elder orphan in progress.” Carol hosts an Elder Orphan group on Facebook, publishes a weekly Aging Matters article or video on SeniorCare.com, and works to increase awareness around preparing society for the needs of aging people.
See Carol's Huffington Post blogs here.