Most Elders Want to Stay at Homes, But Is That What's Best?

Most Elders Want to Stay at Homes, But Is That What's Best?

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Photo: Tim Chambless listens to a question from Matt Proser during a discussion on current events at Parklane assisted living center in Salt Lake City. (Scott G Winterton/Deseret News)

Second of two articles. Read Part 1 here..

MILLCREEK, Utah — A good-natured group of older people has gathered for breakfast in the small common room at Highland Cove Retirement, an independent and assisted-living community.

Eugenia Sutcliffe, 82, is a transplant from Arizona, and everything about the Wasatch Front area seems different and a bit unnerving. Tiny and tidy and perfectly coiffed, she left an art therapy

Studies: Good Relationships
Key to Elders’ Well-Being

Research shows that only 12 percent of older people in the United States will ever live in nursing homes or continuing care facilities, so aging occurs largely behind closed doors in neighborhoods that themselves grow old in waves.

Independence, identity and intimacy matter most as years accumulate, says Rev. William B. Randolph, national director of both the Office of Aging and Older Adult Ministries for The United Methodist Church. Seniors want to do as much as they can on their own, but as they move into a potentially difficult phase of life, forming or maintaining relationships is crucial.

A quarter-century ago, AARP asked senior citizens about close friendships. Most said they had three friends in whom they would confide. When AARP asked in 2010, for most seniors the number had plunged to zero confidants.

While many people report decent health and claim to have even greater life satisfaction well into their 80s and 90s than when they were younger, others are lonely and depressed. Research worldwide says social connections greatly influence quality of life. Even those in failing health can enjoy old age if relationships are good.

Such findings hold worldwide:

*A study in New Delhi, India, in 2009, found many factors bolster a satisfying old age: religious belief, relationships, perceived health, feeling capable, having adequate resources, social skills and interactions.

*A 2012 English report from the University of Brighton, “Wellbeing in Old Age,” found losses of friends and family can be so isolating that community programs able to come to their homes can be essential to their wellness.

*Research from the University of Toronto found older people crave being asked for advice; it adds zest and purpose, yet, they may have fewer opportunities.

Other research shows that intergenerational interactions aren’t just good for the old. For instance, a Brigham Young University study shows mutual benefit when kids and grandparents are close. Youngsters are kinder and their grandparents stay more active.

--Lois M. Collins

practice in Phoenix two years ago to live closer to her daughter and grown grandchildren, who live in Park City and Salt Lake City. She left behind friends and clients and — it seems to her on cold days in Utah — even sunshine.

America is aging rapidly, its population of those 65 and older now more than 46 million, or 1 in 7 people. By 2060, that number's projected to double, which means the country has to figure out whether it will have a robust or frail age-friendly infrastructure.

Choices Limited for Many

Where people live in old age is no small matter. Seniors may need help with transportation, may be ill or weak, may not be able or want to cook. A support network, formal or informal, may become crucial. At the same time, where to live may not really even be a choice, depending on what someone who's old can afford and how that's person's health holds up.

Most seniors will stay in their own homes, usually by choice but some because they can't afford another option. It's hard to predict when you're younger whether you'll become so frail you'll need long-term care or so lonely that moving doesn't seem so bad. Physical and mental health, finances and relationships all impact the decision, but no factor plays stronger than family ties.

Sutcliffe moved into a one-bedroom apartment and filled it with pictures and pottery she created and a trove of flowering plants. But though she brought with her some of her favorite things, she feels downsized, just like her living space, and more than a little lost. The roads and people don't feel familiar; she doesn't dare venture too far lest she not find her way home.

The men and women at Highland Cove have chosen to live where they can retreat into their own apartments and shut their doors or mingle with others at a similar stage of life. Some, like Sutcliffe, do both, emerging mostly in the mornings for a shared breakfast or for Friday game night where they play the card game Apples to Apples.

As they introduce themselves at breakfast, you meet the woman in her 90s who moved here after a car accident, the 85-year-old who was moved her by her kids after she fell. A man who is very quiet pipes up unexpectedly that it's friendly, "communicable, like a disease. It catches onto you." He's been here six years and his neighbors feel like sisters and brothers, he adds.

In Arizona, Sutcliffe had a career and friends and familiar places. But here in Utah, she lives and plays and sometimes grieves, she says, in the precarious stage of adulthood that life coach Nancy Levin once described as being between “no longer and not yet.” No longer young, and fearful of what's ahead.

Finding Your Place

When polled, seniors routinely report they’d like to grow old in their own homes, in the communities they know. Yet, older people can feel isolated whether they're still at home or have been taken from their homes.

Those feelings are problematic, and the impact on health is roughly comparable to smoking, according to research in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, [] Britain's flagship biological research journal. Isolation and loneliness have been linked to woes such as ill health and increased dementia.

The World Health Organization (WHO) lists factors that impact how well old people do in their physical environment: They must be able to get around both indoors and outdoors. Housing must accommodate their limitations and be affordable.

Transportation must be considered, a dilemma for old people who may no longer drive safely but still need to get to stores and doctors and run errands. WHO also lists social aspects of living well in a community, from socializing and attending events to having opportunities to work if they wish.

Stephen M. Golant, a University of Florida, Gainesville, geography professor who wrote Aging in the Right Place, says old people especially need to get enjoyment, stimulation and a sense of belonging from the places where they live.

While agreeing that seniors need basics like transportation, Golant argues if all a city focuses on is creating walkable communities, it leaves many older folks behind. Some would benefit most from connectivity so they could FaceTime with grandchildren or order in groceries. Telehealth, smart home technology and other modern tools could greatly improve lives, but old people must have access and understand how to use them.

Life Among Peers

Golant says there is no mystery to the allure of aging in a familiar place. Older people, he says, “get pleasure and enjoyment from where they live, but they also feel competent there.” Safety is a worry for academics and adult children. Unless they’ve fallen, which casts a pall, elders think instead about being able to do things successfully: “Can I accomplish this?”

He also thinks that while it’s good for seniors to mix with young people, they also benefit from living next to other old folks. They should have both.

Golant adds, “Typically, our social networks, our friendships, are with people at the same stage in life as us. The question becomes, 'What is the rationale to argue that when you’re older, you should change the patterns of interactions you’ve had your entire life?'” Moving in with one's children may sever important old connections unless care is taken to nurture them, Golant warns.

The loss of old connections is part of Sutcliffe’s struggle. She wants to be involved, to contribute — she still has a few art therapy clients who talk to her on the phone while they look at the art on their computers — but she also longs for familiar streets and faces. Right now, everything feels too new — except her body, which sometimes seems to deliberately remind her that it’s old.

Familiar old connections keep Bob Egbert, 85, going. He lives in a Bountiful, Utah, neighborhood where he sees his daughter and his little brother, who’s 82, daily. He also sees old friends. A stocky 5-foot-8 with sandy-colored, curly hair, he’s a retired ironworker surrounded by photos. His living room is immaculate and artfully arranged; he explains he dusts it, but it’s exactly as his wife, Beneta, kept it. She died 16 years ago.

He says he loves his kids and they love him, but he wouldn’t want to live with them. “Some boss me a little,” he says sweetly.

Egbert gardens and sometimes, when he wants more company, he visits the local senior center. It serves lunch and there are classes and activities, but it's also full of familiar neighbors and friends.

Getting Together

Salt Lake’s Tenth East Senior Center has whitewashed brick walls covered with photos at eye level. A series of tables support sign-up sheets. On a visit one late-winter day, anyone over 60 could sign up for yoga, guitar, circuit training, computer class, the AARP Smart Drivers Course and Car Fit Program or study astrology, French or Spanish. There’s a book club and a list is filling with people who want haircuts. The fullest sheet is the one offering discounted massages. Names are even scribbled in the margins.

In January, Director Shawn Ashby said the center served 44 congregate meals and 274 people over 60 showed up for those meals or for programs — a total of 2,377 program hours.

There’s a thrift shop and a dining room, and the art class was packed with seniors. In a bright lobby area, Bruce Jaynes, 69, was doing a jigsaw puzzle. Almost daily he works on puzzles, which get swapped out regularly. Even when he's working alone, he can feel a bigger community close by, just through the doorway.

Helen Rollins, a retired nurse and one of Sutcliffe's new friends, tells "The Onion Story" to explain why she likes the independent living community where she and Sutcliffe live: “If there’s something you can’t do, there’s usually someone here who can.” A resident named Ted recently needed an onion. One neighbor had a chopped onion, another a half onion, a third some frozen onion.

His age and health meant Ted couldn’t just hop in a car and run to the store. But he didn’t have to.
Eugenia Sutcliffe's new community came through.

Lois M. Collins reported this story for The Deseret News as part of a 2016 Journalists in Aging Fellowship supported by New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Silver Century Foundation.