An assisted-living and long-term-care housing development is being built across the street from our family home on the West Side of Vancouver. This development for older people will be in our backyard. The question is, do the neighbors really want old people to be their neighbours?
One evening at the family dinner table we had a serious conversation about how the neighborhood was changing. The first response from our older teenage daughter was she might be able to work there. Maybe grandma and grandpa could move in and be our neighbors — they could come over all the time! My wife, a teacher, thought she might be able to do some adult education. Our youngest daughter was already selecting pop songs from her playlist to share with the tenants and connect digitally on her social media.
What might my connection be with the new aged care community, I asked? “Dad, you are a gerontologist, you already run a retirement village.” The consensus was I might just be the CEO one day as I wouldn’t have to commute very far.
Unfortunately, this open-minded conversation happens too seldom due to ageism — our fear of older people and our fear of growing old. They call this gerontophobia. You may not have heard that term, but you have heard about it all your life. Remember the Beatles song When I’m 64, with the lyrics: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me? … You’ll be older too.”
Each day, we wake up a day older — eventually, if we are lucky enough to live a long life, we will become old, too. But the cities we live in are not adapting for the changing demographic shift that is slowly rising and will impact virtually every aspect of our lives.
Ageism is another form of bigotry. It cuts both ways, affecting older adults and younger people, and is a serious societal problem. In the workplace, ageism can be expressed in a lack of diversity in ages that mirrors current demographic trends, yet a diverse workforce adds important advantages. In many inclusive companies, entry into the workforce for younger people means older works become mentors and eventually those younger workers mentor the next generation.
Ageism is also reflected in the allocation of government resources in the health sector, where older people are seen as a burden, using up more than their fair share, taking up beds in hospitals while they wait for placement in long-term care. The shift to community-based services is a welcome change in public health and social policy, where aging in place is bringing about a revolution in programs and services that extend independence: men’s sheds, social prescribing, day programs for older adults, community centers, and “Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities”.
When our neighborhoods are more “age friendly” it means that our older neighbors are part of local communities that are easily accessible for people of all ages.
Back to the housing development being built across the street. The developers are not building just one, they are building a second on the next main thoroughfare, and a third further west in a quaint shopping neighbourhood. Established neighbourhoods, like the one I call home, do not offer many options for older persons looking to move out of their single-family home but remain in their neighbourhood. Community support will enable innovative living options to replace outdated nursing homes, and open doors for real enjoyment of the city neighborhoods that are too often out of reach for older persons — forcing them to live far afield from where they grew up, raised their families and have friends.
The next time you hear of a development for older persons being built in your neighbourhood, consider saying, “Yes, in my backyard!” One day, you might just be lucky enough to live there.
Dan Levitt is CEO at Kin Village, an adjunct professor of gerontology at SFU, adjunct professor of nursing at UBC, and a sessional instructor at BCIT. He is also a board member of CommonAge and the International Federation on Aging.