Where will you spend your senior citizenship? If you are like the vast majority of us, you want to stay in your own home as long as possible. This popular notion even has a quaint official phrase, "aging in place." It sounds idyllic, passing the golden years among the familiar comforts of home.
But for aging in place to be a healthy way to live, society must create infrastructure to bring people together. There is a dark side to aging in place—primarily, loneliness, a severe social isolation leading to depression, contributing to the onset of Alzheimer's, and resulting in increased mortality. Social isolation has been found to have a mortality rate approaching that of heavy smoking.
As cofounder of Edible Independence, a Kingston-based nonprofit that delivers frozen dinners to senior citizens in their homes each week, there is a sad scenario too often played out. "My weekly visitor," one elderly woman muttered sadly, as I delivered food to her comfortable apartment in Kingston. Of sound mind and with elderly health accoutrements such as a walker and almost always alone, she has over time grown depressed and barely expressive.
During these deliveries I see a dismaying pattern of isolation, pharmacology, and television. Dystopic as that sounds, it is already daily life for many elders, and may become the common reality as the number of senior citizens swells nationally and globally.
It is clear the system is already straining. Nursing homes and senior care facilities are full, and there is no way society can build enough residential facilities to meet the ongoing growth in senior citizenship. Paradoxically, the future is potentially bright for senior citizens. There are encouraging findings about relatively easy methods people may use to help them age well, and promising ways to assist aging in place psychologically and physically. Recent science on brain plasticity and the capabilities of seniors strongly posit that aging well is a matter of trying to do so, exercising mind, body, and social skills. While easily arranged for the small percentage of seniors in nursing homes, the challenges are unmet for those aging in place.
Simply put, seniors aging in place need someplace to go to see people and some way to get there. But if society doesn't embrace the responsibility to pay for what is needed, the future for many elders amounts to house arrest, sometimes even a sentence of solitary confinement, long stretches of isolation with only Andy Griffith on television for company, as overworked family visit only occasionally, so one's main link with the outside world becomes deliveries, especially from pharmacies.
21st-Century Aging Nation and Valley
The problem is already serious and will grow severe. Demographics showing the silver tsunami throughout the 21st century are clear. As of the 2010 Census, 11 million American senior citizens lived alone, and that number is growing rapidly. Our silver tsunami will have several waves. The first of some 75 million baby boomers turned 70 in 2016, 55 million Gen-Xers started turning 50 in 2015, and the first of 82 million millennials turn 40 in 2020. And on average, people are expected to live longer, and perhaps much longer, then ever before.
A stark example of how we are aging is seen in the Census data, which as recently as 1980 categorized its oldest count of elders as age "75 plus." By 2010, categories had to be updated for persons aged 75 to 79, persons aged 80 to 84 and persons attaining 85 plus. These trends are reflected globally.
The Hudson Valley is on the high end of current demographics. Data compiled on the website Mhvcommunityprofiles.org show that in all Mid-Hudson counties the fastest growing segment of our population is the oldest-old among us: "Since 2000, the 85 and over age group grew the fastest, at 53% for Dutchess, 50 percent for Ulster and 44 percent for the region overall. Orange was the only county in the region where the 60 to 84 group had the greatest increase (46 percent) followed by the 85 and over group (33 percent)."
The Hudson Valley is older on average than the nation. Fourteen-point-nine percent of the USA was 65 or older in 2015 using Census data. In Westchester, that figure was 15.8 percent, Putnam, 15.2 percent; Rockland 15.1 percent. Only Orange County was under the national average, with 12.9 percent of its people aged 65 or more.