This post is dedicated to a dear friend and an amazing woman.

Several months ago, upon the recommendation of a friend, I read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It’s not an easy book to read for two reasons. One is the postmodern vision Mitchell builds within linked stories – past, present, and future. “Like a series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes,” said Michael Chabon. The other reason is the number of profound passages that, like reading much of Charles Dickens (my latest binge), there are so many insightful and brilliant passages. I like to put a sticker on these pages so that I can go back and appreciate them again.

So how does this relate to the topic of the elderly – the American elderly—and my friend? I’ll let a brief passage from Cloud Atlas say it for me: “Oh, once you’ve been initiated into the Elderly, the world doesn’t want you back. We – by whom I mean anyone over sixty – commit two offenses just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly. Our second offence is being Everyman’s memento mori. The world can get comfy in shiny-eyed denial if we are out of sight.”

My Friend’s Story   

In late February my friend mentioned in an email that she was moving. She’s age ninety but you would never know it when you have the pleasure of having amazing conversations and laughing equally with her.

I couldn’t believe that she would leave her modest but wonderful condo where I’ve spent many hours in private conversations as well as with her interesting friends. She was one of the reasons why I moved to a particular town almost twenty years ago. And – left for the same reason she is now – priced out! Like an invading army of the rich who have tired of their urban battlefield, they see that her community is a far better place to live. But for many people it has become too expensive to manage on an average income and/or retirement benefits.

And, as an aside, god help you if you live in an over-55 mobile home park. The park’s land owners are flipping them over to developers who either drive up the rent or force primarily seniors to move out. Developers can do something more profitable than provide a safe, comfortable, and usually affordable home for the elderly who generally own their homes but not the land.

My friend is going the way of many of our elderly – having to sell her condo and move into assisted living. The icing on this painful cake is that she has to move some distance from her former home and neighbors.

I won’t clutter this post with the exorbitant cost of assisted living, long-term care facilities, and group homes that house our elders. Or how poorly managed many of them are. Or how assisted living facilities are the “new investment strategy” for venture capitalists. And how we’re learning that when the VC get their hands on health care of any kind, the almighty dollar reigns supreme.

The Community’s Loss

What I want to focus on is not just my friend’s deeply felt loss of independence and sadness, but the unstated loss to her community. Over her decades of living there she led many thoughtful programs in her church and volunteered for numerous cultural and community events. That’s in fact where I met her – the two of us stuck in an event ticket booth in the hot sun. We clicked and never lost touch. Luckily for new “neighbors,” as much as possible, she will take her social nature and caring with her and share it.

We don’t want to lose people like my friend from our communities. They bring their life experiences, work histories, and stability when life is moving too fast. We lose the caring nature they express in so many ways, and a wisdom only achievable from living into their elderhood. Or as my Grandma Rosie used to say, “You can’t put an old head on young shoulders.”

Who wants to live in a community where the elderly are behind closed doors? Or where the rich mix of older adults and younger families sharing the mutual benefit of community is priced out?

Global Aging

By 2034, for the first time in U.S. history, it’s predicted that there will be more citizens over 65 than under 18, and that gap will widen thereafter. The need to care for the growing number of old people is going to require our society to reorient itself toward the elderly. Much of the rest of the world faces the same challenge. How do we create a society that honors elders, provides for their wellbeing, and gives them the care and assistance they may need?

As you might guess a national healthcare program is the rule in most countries, rather than the exception as it is in the U.S. Not even the program we do have for seniors – Medicare – is acceptable given the inadequate benefits (i.e. hear, chew, and see) and soaring hospital bills, claims denials, and drug costs. It’s estimated that over half of those in medical debt are seniors.

Below is how one organization’s ranking of ninety countries. 

The U.S. ranks #36 based on the four criteria. You can see the entire list at:

https://lottie.org/care-guides/which-country-has-the-best-elderly-care/#different-care-systems.

Best Countries for Aging

Of special note is Japan – where it is a common custom to have multiple generations of a family living together in one home. Elders are revered, and grandparents frequently assist with tasks such as childcare and meal preparation. This tradition is thought to be one of the reasons why seniors in Japan live longer than in any other country.

I leave you with these thoughtful gems from Maggie Kuhn, the founder of the Gray Panthers:

Photo credits: Elderly – k-mitch-hodge, Elderly woman – danie-franco