A little over a year ago, my 88 year-old grandmother took a fall that ended up sparking a whole slew of medical problems that landed her in the hospital for a while. Both the fall and her stay in the hospital took a major toll on her body, eventually leading to a transfer to a rehabilitation center and nursing home complex so that she could regain her strength.
Of course, Grammy’s time in the rehab center had its disheartening moments: She was in a lot of pain, and it took a level of endurance to get herself back on her feet (literally) that none of the rest of our family, relatively young and spry, could imagine. But I thought the place was nice. She was getting quality therapy and assistance, and made quite a few friends and admirers among the other residents during her time there.
My mother could agree with about as much in terms of the center’s benefits, but she was nevertheless pretty miserable in that space. She expressed to me on more than one occasion how spending the last years of her life in a nursing home is one of the more depressing things she could imagine. This got me to thinking about the different ways in which we typically conceptualize old age, how the elderly engage with the rest of society, and how to improve senior living spaces to the advantage of everyone.
One of the obvious things about a nursing home, a retirement community, or an assisted-living space is that the residents are old. But I think that a lot of people who feel dispirited by these kinds of environments aren’t necessarily upset by old age in general; after all, old age is often a cause for celebration and joy. The experiences and knowledge we can gain from older generations are invaluable. Instead, the reason for the aversion to senior living spaces has a lot more to do with how society typically defines aging well, and how residents in those places tend to illustrate the criteria commonly associated with having aged poorly.
Last November, Professor Shellae Versey presented a lecture at the College of the Environment’s annual symposium, “Where on Earth Are We Going?” that raised this very question of what it means to “age well,” and how the common definition tends to be pretty narrow. She discussed biological factors that come into play—like being free of disease, having high physical and mental functioning, and generally being self-sufficient—as well as socialfactors, like the extent to which a person engages with other people and their general surroundings. Professor Versey emphasized the importance of establishing our own personal gauges for what it means to age well, and her own research additionally suggested the significance of the social engagement component.
As we climb up into old age, we are likely a lot more apt to consider the conditions of our personal bodies over our social environments in relation to our physical and mental health. But Professor Versey’s research indicates that what she calls “generativity” (the satisfaction of giving to others) increases with old age, that feeling useful (through your social environment) can make or break your physical health, and that as we get older and older, the influence of genetics on health declines while the influence of environment goes up. This knowledge points to the ways in which senior-living spaces could be made better, and why people may feel they are unfavorable in general.
My particular qualms with senior living spaces have to do with how they encourage residents to connect with others outside of the residence, in light of the positive impacts that “generativity” and feeling useful can have on health (especially in old age). I think that this connection could be improved by shifting how we think about integrating different-aged communities, like connecting pre-schools and elementary schools with surrounding older-aged communities.
For example, I can recall countless choral and dance performances of my childhood at senior living communities. Granted, I think that the residents were very pleased by these recitals—regardless of how well they could hear the music. Such is the effect of having a break in the monotonous age dynamic typically present in those spaces. But there are better options. Another activity in which my elementary school partook was having special days for residents from senior living communities to come to school and teach us how to sew. There is clearly much more of an engagement component in the latter example; the residents were taking an active role in our learning experiences, thus giving back to their community in a more effectual way than being passive audience members.
This kind of intergenerational engagement has been developed in different ways, all over the world, for a long time. A nursing home in Seattle called Providence Mount St. Vincent shares its facilities with a pre-school five days a week. Established in 1991, the program is called an Intergenerational Learning Center (ILC) and provides social interaction between the two age groups to flourish and develop a reciprocal relationship of learning and care. Seattle is not the birthplace of this idea: It originated in Japan and has spread across the U.S. and Canada. Another example of intergenerational engagement from Professor Versey’s research is the idea of having university-based retirement communities; in other words, setting up a senior living space in proximity to a university to promote the greater community’s use of university resources.
Wesleyan’s Wasch Center for Retired Faculty currently runs the Wesleyan Institute for Lifelong Learning, designed to extend Wesleyan’s educational resources beyond just enrolled students. Perhaps this program can be extended to senior-living communities in the greater Middlesex County area, and also be developed to increase student accessibility.
Moving towards intergenerational spaces, and keeping an emphasis on how they can foster social engagement that is key to human health, is one way to have a positive impact on how we view old age and care for the aged. These spaces can help expand common conceptions of what old age entails, and break the stigma that being old means being static and out of touch with the rest of society.
Aibinder is a member of the class of 2018.