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Is 90 the new 70?

Aging in Place: Better health, senior villages and technology make aging at home easier


   Staying at home can become increasingly difficult as people age. Suddenly changing a light bulb, picking up a prescription, or getting to a doctor’s appointment can become problematic and frustrating. Asking for help is a painful proposition for a lot of seniors proud of their independence.
   For the next twenty years, baby boomers will turn sixty-five at the rate of 10,000 per day according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Not only does this shape different views on aging, it affects everyone concerned about aging parents, especially if they don’t live close by.
   This is sparking a number of new movements like aging in place, senior villages, multi-level independent and assisted living facilities that include memory-assisted services, and investment from major corporations to develop new technologies to help people remain independent as long as possible.
   Research has pinpointed some essentials to well-being that need to be in place for this to be successful. They include communication and engagement, health and wellness, contribution and legacy and home safety and security. How this can be achieved is taking shape in many different ways across the country.

It takes a village—but not just for kids.
    There is a growing nationwide movement that is creating a community allowing people to age in their own homes.  It’s not a physical community of elders isolated from the rest of society, but rather a virtual gateway to resources, linkages, and advocacy that gives members access to help on a myriad of levels while living in their neighborhood.
   It is a concept that started ten years ago in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood when a group of like-minded citizens formed Beacon Hill Village, a way that older people could more easily access the services that would help keep them in their homes. Other members, younger neighbors and youth groups help out and there are vetted contractors for hire.
   The idea spread around the country. There are at least 56 villages now operating in the country with over 100 others in the works. Last year the Village to Village (VtV) Network formed to give guidance to those who want to form new villages. We have one here in Chicago.

Lincoln Park Village
    In 2007 three couples wanted to start a village in Chicago based on what was going on in Beacon Hill. They used the manual, formed a non-profit and in 2008, Dianne Campbell came on board as Founding Executive Director, opening a small office at 2502 N. Clark with some part-time help.
   “It’s a neighbor to neighbor grass roots effort with the support and help of friends. We are not a facility-we are a plan. I’ve been blown away by the 87 volunteers who roll up their sleeves to create this pioneering effort,” says Campbell.
    The youngest member of the village is 50, the oldest is 94. Through an alliance with DePaul University and Loyola University there is a cross generation of younger and older people. “If we can solve a problem with volunteers, we do that first,” says Campbell. It could be help with decluttering, for example.
  There is a Spring Cleaning service day with De Paul volunteers who help with computers, clean windows and replace light bulbs, offering some good conversation along the way. There is a steady stream of social work interns from Loyola who help link people with each other to solve problems like computer issues.
   “Rides are our number one request,” says Campbell. Carefully vetted volunteers who are drivers take members to medical appointments, grocery shopping and to see friends.
    One of the people enrolled in the village was developing memory loss issues, and happened to go for a walk and didn’t come back one day. The Village got five calls and not just from members. The Village hopes to inspire more than just members to look out for each other.
   “Many of the members are primary caregivers for a parent or we are helping people take care of parents who are out of state,” she says. “We have members in their 50s who want to build now for later. A couple from Oak Park who had read about the village came into the office and were looking for a community. They were still working but wanted to plan for just one move when they were ready,” she says.
   It started small. “We didn’t know what we were in for. The needs are great, but so are the gifts and talents,” says Campbell. Members are concentrated in Lincoln Park, Lakeview and Near North—representing an upscale membership—but there are significant pockets of lower income people.
  “About 18% of our members are supported but no one knows who they are and no one cares. Circumstances can change quickly for anyone. You can live in CHA housing or be house rich and cash poor,” she says.
    A single membership is $540 or $780 for a household. For those with incomes under $45,000 the cost is $100 per year which includes a $200 credit for services. The renewal rate is 90%.
    Services can include rides, house watching, snow shoveling, yard work, housekeeping and home repair, computer help, pet sitting and pickups and deliveries. Members are connected to events like golf, mindfulness instruction, brain fitness, Tai Chi, cultural events, educational programs and volunteering.
   “At every turn it is members who are driving it. They have great ideas. We had a couple of members who got together to find a place to volunteer with preschoolers,” says Campbell. Calls are coming in about starting villages in Oak Park, Lincoln Square and the South Loop. “What we’ve realized is that it’s no small sneeze to put together a village. It’s not easy to start one with all of the behind-the-scenes systems and vetting volunteers. You have to muscle up technology systems. We don’t want to become an agency,” she says.
    Campbell believes the cross generational sharing is a special tool and it’s about what’s next in life and leaving a legacy. “It used to be you worked, retired and then you died ten to fifteen years later. Now it’s 25 to 30 years later. A real role for people in their 50s, 60s and 70s is giving back,” she says.
   “With all of the government cutbacks, I think we’re going to have to take care of each other.”

Northeastern Illinois Agency on Aging
   “We’re the best kept secret around. People are in denial about their own aging until they are in crisis. Whether they have a crisis at 67 or 92, a health crisis hits them and their children. People think it’s not for me—I’m not there yet” says Connie Kobitter, Special Events Manager of the Northeastern Illinois Agency on Aging that serves the eight counties outside of Cook.
    Northeastern Illinois Agency on Aging is funded under the Older Americans Act passed in 1965. Today it’s considered to be the major provider of social and nutrition services, or Meals on Wheels, for seniors and their caregivers. It also has some community service employment for low income older Americans, research on aging, and some elder rights protection activities.
  “There are a phenomenal amount of seniors living alone. There is a lot of countermigration of seniors returning from the sunbelt states.
   When Kobitter started with the agency thirty one years ago, the average age of those seeking services of the agency was 67. Now it’s 87. “People are living healthier and longer. The oldest person in our nutrition program is 104. We also have mother and daughter combos in their 90s and 70s,” shesays. From October of 2009 to September 2010, Northeastern provided 557,023 meals.
   The agency also provides legal services about evictions, and advice on Social Security  and Medicare. The churches recruit a corps of volunteers that help. There are growing numbers of seniors living alone and more counter migration of seniors returning from other states.
   Even though they are regularly threatened with funding cuts, nobody is denied who is in need of the program. You just need to be over 60 and in need of service. While no one has to pay, there is a suggested donation.
   The Agency is a particularly important resource for out of town children. “We get a lot of calls from children of aging parents. Where can mom get a hearing aid?” say Kobitter. A case manager can be sent out to do an in-home assessment.

How to Tell if your Parents Need Help
    Glenn Brichacek, PhD and President and CEO of The Admiral at the Lake continuing care retirement community at the corner of Marine Drive and Foster Ave. says there are warning signs that indicate that aging parents may need to move.

Common red flags:

  • Can they keep up a home, not only housekeeping but maintenance like the roof and lawn?
  • Are they taking care of themselves with three good meals a day and proper nutrition?
  • How is their memory? Is there a cognitive decline?
  • Medications—are they taken properly and on schedule?
  • Personal hygiene—are they not as refined as they once were?

   New technology is being developed to help people stay at home but even that becomes problematic if cognition declines. “The new technology is really quite exciting. There are devices in the home that will signal what and when to take meds. The problem is what happens if the senior forgets what the alarm means? It also doesn’t solve the social isolation problem. A webcam to the senior center is not the same as being there.”
   For the children of an aging parent however, it can be help if the needs are not yet serious.  Technology can send out an alert if the parent doesn’t get out of bed by a certain time.
   As needs progress there is a lot to consider like nursing services, companion services, bathing, dressing, cleaning and preparing meals. What is the reliability of an outsider in the home? Can you get the support you really need, for example, intravenous fluids.
   “Whether you move to a community like ours or stay home, both have advantages and challenges,” says Brichacek.

Lakefront Living
   The advantages of signing on to a community like the Admiral are many if you can afford it or are fortunate enough to get some assistance. Independent living, assisted living, memory-assisted living and skilled nursing care are all available at the same site and it’s easy to move to the next level if necessary.
   Apartments range from $300,000 to $900,000 and are 90 percent refundable to the owner’s estate. The Admiral invests the money, and proceeds help pay for future health care. The monthly fee is in the $2500 range for the use of community, a continental breakfast and one more meal daily, and the use of facilities and programs. There is a pool, fitness center, art studio and lifelong learning associated with a university. No matter how old a resident becomes, care is guaranteed.
  The building is predominantly independent living apartments at a total of 200. There are 39 assisted living suites; 17 memory care; and 36 private skilled nursing suites.
   The number of independent living suites may be due to the fact that even though there are more older people now, quality of life is better for longer periods of time. Brichacek says, “The decline in later years used to be more gradual. People are living longer and need long term care less than they used to.  The end is more precipitous.”
   Twenty years ago the average age at The Admiral was 60 to 70. Now the average is 70 to 80 with declines happening well into the 80s if there are any.
   The Admiral is the oldest Chicago nonprofit organization dedicated to senior living. Founded in 1858, it was originally the Home for Aged and Indigent Females. After the Chicago Fire it became the Old People’s Home of the City of Chicago. In 1960 the organization purchased The Admiral Hotel south of the Edgewater Beach Hotel. For the new venture they are partnering with Kendal, another nonprofit with fourteen other communities.

We’re All in this Together
    Despite the bombardment of grim economic forecasts, these trends seem to bode well for aging boomers wary of their future.  Longer and healthier lives; aging in place; intergenerational support; technology making the linking of resources possible; and a growing movement of people who look out for each other is a plan.


Lincoln Park Village— lincolnparkvillage.org

Northeastern Illinois Agency on Aging—    ageguide.org

The Admiral on the Lake—  admiral.kendal.org

Beacon Hill Village—beaconhillvillage.org

Village to Village Network—vtvnetwork.org

Published: August 20, 2011
Issue: Fall 2011 Issue