There has been much controversy in Summerland about a proposed new residence for seniors. The impact such a development might have on the community makes headlines. Many voices are heard, but I don’t hear much from seniors themselves. What kind of home do they want for their retirement?
Some assume that building a village for seniors is ideal. Escaping from busy streets and malls. Having a corner store, library, concert hall and dining hall all under the same roof as their bedroom. Very convenient. But does convenience give meaning to life?
I have a suite in a small independent living facility in Summerland. I chose this place because living with a small group of people seemed much more like being in a family than becoming faceless in an artificial village. The last thing I want to do in my final years is vanish into anonymity.
This is not a new idea. For the last 20 years, Denmark has stopped building long-term care facilities and has focused on small nursing homes. That decision arose from a philosophy of integrating elderly people into the community as long as possible and not doing things for them that they can do themselves. Dependency, the Danes have learned, is a slippery slope that hastens death. Though building small residential units costs a bit more, the Danes found it results in people living longer, happier lives. The family atmosphere gives seniors a sense of belonging and motivation to be involved.
For seniors to feel part of the larger community they must meet people from that community. In Holland seniors’ communities offered university students free board and room in exchange for their spending time with the residents. The benefits were so obvious that this model is now used in Scandinavian countries.
A few years ago a local woman in a wheelchair came looking for temporary independent accommodation until the house she was to live in was ready. Cared for by attendants and family, she occupied one of our suites, joining us for meals. We loved having her as part of our “family” and were delighted when she later invited some of us to her wedding. She and her husband now drop by often for a meal and friendly chatter with us.
How can Summerland use these insights?
I would suggest we all have a role in planning for the golden years. District Council should continue to encourage building places for seniors, but favour small community-involved units over massive isolated castles. Directors and managers of existing facilities for seniors could explore ways to free their tenants from an overload of rules and allows them more say in their lives. Teachers planning field trips for their classes could arrange visits to senior homes, allowing both children and seniors to experience one another in real life. Sharing common interests across the generation gap is an excellent way to create a feeling of community. I know I would love to be friends with a teenager who could teach me the mysteries of the iPhone and who would welcome my thoughts on how to be a good writer.