Building A Village

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. Not the future. My future.

My aunt turned 98 on Thursday, and I went down to spend a couple of days with her. I am often awed, not just by the devotion her primary caregiver shows (a woman who was her housekeeper for 30 years and took caregiving certification courses so she could be there for my aunt) but at the network of care that surrounds her. My uncle’s nephew manages the finances and coordinates her home care. Her medical care is overseen by UCLA’s Geriatrics department (which coordinates with all the medical visitors–primary care doctor, PT, nurse supervisor, meds management, etc.). Her wonderful primary caregiver is there for several days at a time (and her younger daughter, who is a PhD candidate at UCLA, subs in on occasion), and there are several respite caregivers that my aunt knows and likes, who come in so that Maria can have some time off. The guy who manages the building and takes care that everything is working properly. And family: my daughter lives in the garage apartment of the building and has dinner with my aunt a couple of times a week. I am planning to visit for a few days every couple of weeks for the foreseeable. So that’s more than a dozen people.

My aunt wanted to stay in her own home, and is fortunate that a lifetime of work and saving has made that possible–and that her sweetness, and the love everyone has for her and my uncle, ensures that she’s surrounded by kindness and affection.

On the other hand, my father, and my in-laws, both chose to go to continuing care residences. My father did so because he went blind, and living in a rural community meant that all of his time was spent arranging rides to shop and visit doctors, and… Dad was ferociously independent and deeply social. It was a better fit for him to move–on his own initiative–to a place where things like rides, and shopping, and a social life, were part of the of the package. He lived there for about a dozen years, and loved the place. And my in-laws sold their home and moved into a similar continuous-care place while they were still hale enough to make it their home: they made friends, got involved in politics and other things, traveled widely, and were always happy to come back to their new home. In both cases, moving in long before they needed assistance (medical assistance anyway) or heightened care, meant that they had a community and a sense of belonging. They did not mourn, as some elderly folks do, for the home they left when they were put into nursing care. They were home, and the care came to them.

Because I write SF and so many of my friends are writers (with all the colorful personalities and imaginations that implies) the subject of how to handle our own futures sometimes comes up. Every few years someone says “what we should do is pool our money and buy an apartment building/subdivision/whole town and live there.” (I will not discuss how much money it might cost to buy a “whole town” in even the cheapest real estate area, or how many writers would have to buy in to make this happen.) The problem I see with this is infrastructure. I look at the community my aunt has taking care of her her: medical, legal, financial care–and the nice guy who looks after the building and can come by when there’s a plumbing problem or a light switch threatens to short out. That’s all to take care of one elderly woman.

“We can hire someone to take care of that stuff,” my friends say blithely. I’m not sure it’s that simple: there are a lot of skills folded into that community. Better make sure that the town we buy is close to a hospital–preferably one with experience dealing with the elderly. And that there’s a doctor–or at least a nurse-practitioner–on call. And make sure there are caregivers for those who inevitably can no longer take care of themselves. Also: physical therapists, respiratory therapists, etc. etc (proximity to a hospital might make this easier). You’ll need a manager for the town–to make sure that all the Is are dotted and the Ts crossed, the property maintained and property taxes etc. are paid. And someone to manage the residents’ finances too: not everyone is good with this stuff–and even if you were good with money management once, you might need help later on. So hire a manager who is good with money, honest as the day is long, and able to provide a spectrum of services from “no thank you” to complete management. Someone who knows the ins and outs of Social Security and Medicare, since those are doubtless going to be important for many residents.

More cosiderations: Does the town have a pharmacy? That’s important. And a market. And some access to culture, and perhaps public transportation (if the nearest cultural events are several towns over, do you really want dozens of elderly drivers out on the road after returning from a movie? As importantly, do the elderly drivers themselves want to be out on the road at all?). How about things to do? Even a town full of writers are going to want to do other stuff (if only to keep from staring at a blank page all afternoon). Yoga or dance or arts and crafts or tennis or golf or whatever it is the Old Folks are doing these days. Is there a library? I think the continuous-care facility makes a lot of sense, because they’ve already done a lot of the infrastructure work for me.

The advantage of the “buy a whole town” idea is that you’d be in a community self-selected for ¬†writers, people with common interests. But honestly, I don’t love every writer I know, and I’m not sure I’d want to live with just writers. Even just artists and dancers and writers and poets. Or even just people with my own particular political and philosophical biases. Okay, so buy a town and fill it with your friends. I’d love to have all the people I love with me as I shuffle off into the future–but I’d like to make new friends and learn new things.

It’s a lot. But if there’s anything that visiting with my aunt has shown me, it’s that I should be thinking about this now, and trying to build a village I can spend the rest of my life in.

3 thoughts on “Building A Village

  1. I think about this sort of thing a lot. My father moved into independent living at a senior facility. He was able to shift to assisted living and then into memory care at the same place, which was a well-run nonprofit in a small city in Central Texas. He and my mother had already sold their home before she died and he was renting, so aging in place in an impersonal apartment building was not as reasonable a choice. I have also watched an aging in place situation which is hell on everyone involved and spent time with another person living reasonably happily in a well-run retirement community, where they have moved from independent living to assisted living.

    The trouble with retirement communities is that most of the people in them are old. I would prefer to live around people of all ages. A more serious trouble with them is that some of them are owned by venture capitalists or other profit-hungry types who don’t run them properly, and even well-run ones might be sold to such people. There are regular horror stories about such places. It’s hard to guarantee that you will not end up in a place that suddenly forces you to move when you reach a stage in life similar to that of your aunt.

    I am involved with a local organization called the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, which is acquiring real estate for both residential and business purposes and taking it off the speculative market. I would like to end up in a multifamily building owned by that group, one that has people of all ages and backgrounds, with perhaps the strongest common denominator being a committment to this kind of housing. We haven’t found the right place yet, though there are others who share our interest. Having people of all ages means we can help each other in different ways. And doing this in the urban East Bay means we are close to the facilities that make all our lives easier.

    I would want this if I were much younger, for much the same reasons. I am hungry for community. I have good relationships with most of my neighbors and we do favors for each other, but I’d like much stronger connections. Obviously, as I get older, I need to have some things in place even if I get a chance to live in this sort of community so that I can get extra help as needed.

    Which is all to say that I share your concerns and your interests. I wish we had more established community living situations in place. Anne Helen Peterson had a good interview on her substack today that touches on some of this: https://annehelen.substack.com/p/reimagining-life-with-friendship

  2. I don’t remember off hand what the underlying structure of the place my father lived in was–I suspect it was a non-profit, from the way it was run. And as a caveat, it was subject to the same sort of internecine politics as any group of humans (dorm politics, if you will). I wasn’t aware of this until after my father’s death, when my attempt to thank the community was quite gracelessly turned away by the editor of the resident newsletter, who didn’t like my father and didn’t think the community should be thanked by his children. Go figure.

    My in-laws were in one of a number of Quaker-based non-profits, and that’s sort of my model for what I would like.

    I hear you about being surrounded by a range of people of various ages. I think this is why so many of the places I’m researching tend to be in culturally dense places–college towns or areas with a thriving arts scene (my father’s place was in Lenox, MA, home of Tanglewood and the Jacobs Pillow Dance festival, and many many artists and schools) because they tend to be more intergenerational communities. Because I’m the rare-bird who is more energized by cities than by nature, I’d be happy to be in a city (see: public transportation, intergenerational communities, vibrancy) if I can find the place I want somewhere I want to live at a price point we can manage.

    None of this is simple.

    1. Absolutely none of it is simple. It occurs to me that we of the boomer generation ought to do what we can to make it work better, because there are so damn many of us and some of us were even good activists back int the day. OTOH, organizing stuff is a lot of work.

      I’m also a city person, but I want easy access to nature as well. Oakland is actually a good place for that because we have a lot of wildish parks, some of which can even be reached by public transit, as well as the health care infrastructure, restaurants, bookstores, and other perks of modern life. But finding the housing that works is not so easy.

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