Optimizing Social Capital Can Enhance Aging in Community

Article excerpt

Last September, I wrote about the power of intentional community and intergenerational contact in transforming nursing homes. But for every older person in a nursing home, there are nearly 32 living in the community. More than a third of these people live alone, according to 2010 Census figures.

By the year 2025, those older than age 65 in the United States will outnumber schoolchildren. Half of these adults live in suburban communities originally fueled by the growth of the automobile industry, another 23 percent live in rural areas and require cars for almost all travel, and 27 percent are urban dwellers, according to the Congressional Research Service. By 2030, one out of five suburbanites will be older than age 65.

But the American suburb is a poor place to age. As Aging Services of Minnesota President Gayle Krenvold said on NPR, "We have built suburbs with threecar garages, but no sidewalks."

No Car, No Bread

Contemporary community design, plus low public transportation investment have created neighborhoods where a person who cannot drive is stranded. Even access to a loaf of bread is beyond reach of the average pedestrian. With more and more Americans living long enough to become physically challenged, people's ability to maintain independence in such communities is tenuous.

People must either make it alone or move to an elder living community. There have been many attempts at better methods to "age in place," but each approach is limited in the likelihood that it will adequately address the coming age boom.

Elders often cannot lean on family members, as their children have moved far away, are single parents or part of a dual-working couple. Some neighborhoods have formed coalitions where services can be provided for a fee, but this requires financial stability, and contracted services can always fall through for a variety of reasons.

Newer elder housing communities are being built closer to retail stores and public transportation, but this requires moving house. Lastly, both economic downturns and natural disasters can further strain our fragile support systems and lead to a crisis for many elders.

The common flaw in all options is that aging supports remain largely a monetized system that flies in the face of expected population shifts, and is financially untenable. Most of our community planning lacks resilience.

A Commitment to Social Capital

Many forms of resilience are needed for communities to be successful- resilience to physical and cognitive changes, demographic changes, family and neighborhood support changes, economic changes and property damage from natural disasters. A community can respond to these situations by improving such home and community features as "smart home" adaptive technologies, monitoring systems, expanded public transportation and by creating walkable communities.

Beyond this, our nation needs to explore potential models and options for aging in community. We need to make a commitment to optimizing social capital, so support comes not through purchased services, but through an interdependent societal structure, such as neighborhood watch groups, school PTAs, ride-sharing and faith-based home visits. …