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Interdependence: The Real Secret of Aging at Home

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Aging at home sounds so normal. Indeed, throughout most of human history it's been the norm. Yet there are issues. (Of course there are issues. This is a blog.)

Often, people say they want to age in place because they know where their friends are, their support team (from doctors to hairdressers and mechanics), their shops and shopkeepers and of course, their family members and friends.

But nothing stays the same forever, so I asked AARP Foundation's Walter Woods, a vice president, programs-Isolation Impact Area, what happens as all those connections themselves age, shut down, move away, sicken or even die?

Plus, suburbs. So many people live in areas with inadequate transit.

(Woods helped us understand the value of social connectedness in previous posts here and here.)

"Aging in place makes perfect sense when you're surrounded by the support and services that you want and are familiar with," says Woods.

Often, though, our needs change as we age. It can be hard to understand and predict new and changing needs, even harder to give up the familiar during times of change. To make matters worse, many older adults see nursing homes or other seemingly unappealing options as the only alternatives to staying in their own homes.

Barring the power to predict the future, what can people getting older do?

Woods says:

As individuals, we need to acknowledge that as we age, there will be changes to our lives, our support circles, and perhaps our abilities. These changes can affect us even if we stay in our current domiciles. We should be proactive and prepare as best we can for our changing needs.

Meanwhile, as a society, we've got to work harder to develop more and better housing options and more 'intentional communities' so that all of us can be happy, healthy and connected across the lifespan.

This means, he adds, that policy makers would do well to put social isolation on the menu of urgent public-health challenges. Both city planners and workplace designers could look at ways to keep a community's older residents vital and less vulnerable to the changes that come with time.

In short, to keep a once-busy "home base" from becoming an isolated prison requires a change in attitude.

"People need to move beyond the idea of 'independence' as we now think about it," says Woods. "Humans are an interdependent species. We survived the harshest of conditions from our earliest days by recognizing that cooperation, shared resources, and the provision of mutual aid were keys to survival."

"That doesn't suddenly change once we start getting older," he adds, "but so often we stubbornly refuse help or won't reach out as we get older. Pride is a silly thing to let get in the way of living a full and satisfying life.

"Older adults have spent a lifetime helping and supporting friends and families and drawing on the help and support of those around them. Perhaps the balance of that equation changes a little as we age, but there's nothing wrong with that," he says.

Sounds like wisdom. It implies that people shouldn't be afraid to ask for help when they need it, be it a hand around the house, someone to help with the cooking or a companion for shopping and other outings.

"Aging at home" means we've come full circle. The big post-war model was to move to an age-segregated community with a lot of social opportunities. Some people liked that, others did not. What should people to know, in terms of social connectedness, when deciding whether to move to an 'active living' or retirement community for voluntary, non-health reasons?

These communities can be a great option for some, especially those who find it appealing to not be in the company of a lot of the young or very young," Woods says. "But we think about whether there will be enough opportunities to engage with people of all ages. It appears that both ends of the age spectrum -- and everyone in between --- benefit from intergenerational support and engagement.

"Youth and older adults have a lot to offer one another," he continues. "Young people can learn skills first-hand, from people who can share a wealth of life experience. How many of us continue to draw on things we got from an older adult when we were younger? The life lessons that came in the form of conversations with a grandparent, older neighbor or family friend helped to shape our philosophies, decisions and lives as a whole. Meanwhile, older adults benefit not only from the presence of youthful perspectives. Aging individuals benefit from opportunities to share their skills and knowledge with others. They still matter."

In any case, people can expect their social behavior to change with aging, as it did when they moved through earlier stages in life. What works? (My book talks about finding new ways to entertain, for example.)

Woods says, "In middle age, we typically work, which gives structure to our lives and provides a social network. The work place provides opportunities to interact with others and potentially make friends. Your time is full and you have a clear and defined role to play, which is important for your mental and emotional health.

"In older age and retirement, this structure falls away and you have to be much more intentional about cultivating networks and activities to engage in." That calls for active planning on everyone's part.

It might be especially demanding for introverts, who aren't necessarily shy but prefer quality or depth in relationships over quantity. Because they have smaller networks, "that inherently creates more risk for isolation, as a loss of even one member of that network can dramatically reduce it," Woods says. "Moreover, it can be harder for individuals with these preferences to develop and cultivate new relationships.

"For these people, it probably doesn't make sense to suggest or try to dramatically change their personality or preferences. A better bet for maintaining a healthy level of social connectedness might be to focus on identifying and engaging in activities and interests that stimulate and fulfill them."

That might mean putting more time into interest groups or clubs to find some kindred spirits.

Additionally or alternatively, people can look for community organizations that are doing things that mean something to them. "There may be volunteer options with them or other ways to engage in their work leading to increased sense of purpose as well as connection," he points out.

Even in communities where things revolve around the local house of worship, many events are open to the public. Woods says, "Leaders and members understand that some participants will not become members of their congregations, nor are they interested in 'finding religion.' Such events are still a chance to connect with local people and gain introductions to other community organizations, volunteer opportunities, or options for engagement."

Finally, this article -- written as it is for a social network -- needs to cover the social role of technology, which can connect but also isolate. What are some pro-social uses of technology in aging?

"For some, technology is a lifeline," says Woods. "For others, unfortunately, it can take the place of more meaningful, face-to-face activities and interactions. There aren't yet enough models, though, to sort out the good from the bad."

So far, he says the tech industry is focusing on innovation to support health and caregiving. It's promising, especially to help people ensure their loved ones' safety, but the focus is not yet on the social and emotional needs of older adults.

"Sure, video-conferencing tools and social networks can help older adults stay connected when they know how to use them," says Woods, "but it would be great to see innovations that help the truly vulnerable who can't afford expensive devices and monthly connection costs."

His AARP Foundation unit is experimenting with pilot programs. In one, older adults get tablet computers and six months of (volunteer) training on how to use them. Not only do they make new friends in the class, but over time, "participants are realizing more fully the power of this technology to connect and communicate with family and friends in different ways," says Woods.

Woods recalls, "One participant in this C2C, Connecting to Community, program, told us, 'What an experience! I was disconnected from my family, my community and the world before I signed up. Now I am enjoying my newfound skills and my world is bigger than it ever was!'"

Those benefits would aid people at any time in life, but it's particularly important when age-related changes cut people off. The human instinct for interdependence lasts a lifetime. Let's be sure we honor it in real time.

Have these articles prompted more thought on how you and your loved ones might stay connected as everyone gets older? What living options do you think might work for you? How would you like technology to support your essential social needs?

More information about AARP Foundation's Isolation program can be found here.