Wars and cherry blossoms

Cherry blossom
Cherry blossom (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)

If St. Patrick’s Day is a good time to be Irish, the Cherry Blossom Festival is definitely a good time to be Japanese, at least in San Francisco. The procession of sparkly-costumed, drum-beating, flag-waving, frenzied-dancing groups of revelers in the Cherry Blossom Parade, combined with the parade watchers, would lead you to believe everybody in town is Japanese at cherry blossom time.

Walking home from church about 20 blocks or so away (walking was the only option; Post Street was closed to traffic) I decided to follow the parade route coming east from Fillmore Street and see the action up close. Bad idea. The sidewalks along the parade route – i.e., Post Street, my new address – were already inhabited by about 14 people per sq ft, six rows deep. Before being totally overwhelmed with panic I managed to extricate myself and detour uphill a few blocks, out of the crowds.

It occurred to me, from a slight safe distance away, that in those crowds were:

People, waving Japanese and American flags in each hand, whose parents and grandparents fought for “the enemy” a few wars back.

People whose parents and grandparents were interned during that war by their own government here – and have managed to forgive.

People whose religions are vastly different – there were more than a few hijabs in the sidewalk crowds, and definitely more Sunday morning beer drinkers than church-goers – all cheering with the sheer joy of it all.

And probably no one who hadn’t spent many hours in the past week bound in a sort of national community of grief by the horror that struck a similarly festive event in Boston.

All of us just enjoying the sunshine and the cherry blossoms.

Best city for geezers? NY lays claim

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New York City seems to be all aglow in being named by the World Health Organization to its Global Network of Age-friendly cities. As Clyde Haberman reported about the event in the July 1 New York Times,

“It makes us members of a club of people who are struggling, in their own and perhaps much different ways, with learning about and thinking about and approaching this issue,” said Linda I. Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services. “It’s really a lovely recognition.”

One reason for the acknowledgment was a plan that city officials and the New York Academy of Medicine announced last year to improve life for older New Yorkers. All sorts of ideas were put forth, on matters like transportation, housing, health care, job training, nutrition and cultural activities. To a large degree, it was more a wish list than a concrete program. But at least it showed that the city was thinking about issues that will only become more dominant.

Like other cities, New York has a population that is aging, if you will forgive a somewhat meaningless word that we are stuck with. After all, everyone is aging. It’s called living. The only people not aging are dead.

WHO says, of its Global Nework of Age-friendly Cities, that the problem lies with the fact that too many of us are aging and not dying.

Populations in almost every corner of the world are growing older. The greatest changes are occurring in less-developed countries. By 2050, it is estimated that 80% of the expected 2 billion people aged 60 years or over will live in low or middle income countries. The Network aims to help cities create urban environments that allow older people to remain active and healthy participants in society.

To that end, the Network got off the ground a few years ago, and now lists a few cities across the globe as having been accepted for membership. This week’s bulletin (excerpted above and below) lists the Big Apple as the first U.S. member, although the PDF of member cities also lists Portland, and one has to wonder how Portland’s going to feel about all of New York’s hoopla.

The WHO Age-friendly Cities initiative began in 2006 by identifying the key elements of the urban environment that support active and healthy ageing. Research from 33 cities, confirmed the importance for older people of access to public transport, outdoor spaces and buildings, as well as the need for appropriate housing, community support and health services. But it also highlighted the need to foster the connections that allow older people to be active participants in society, to overcome ageism and to provide greater opportunities for civic participation and employment.

The Global Network builds on these principles but takes them a significant step further by requiring participating cities to commence an ongoing process of assessment and implementation. Network members are committed to taking active steps to creating a better environment for their older residents.

A few years ago (2006) the Sperling’s Best Places people came out with a “Best Cities” list about which do the best job of caring for their aging folks. The “Best Cities for Seniors” study examined the state of senior care in the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States.

“This is different from the usual studies of retirement living,” said Bert Sperling, the study’s primary author. “When we first retire, we have the energy for traveling and sightseeing. At some point, we will all need specialized resources and facilities to help us cope with aging. That’s what this study examines.”

This unique new study, produced in partnership with Bankers Life and Casualty Company, identifies cities that offer the best resources for less active seniors. The study analyzed nearly 50 categories such as various senior living facilities, comprehensive medical care, specialized transportation services, and a significant senior population.

Top Ten Cities for Seniors

  1. Portland, OR
  2. Seattle, WA
  3. San Francisco, CA
  4. Pittsburgh, PA
  5. Milwaukee, WI
  6. Philadelphia, PA
  7. New York, NY
  8. Boston, MA
  9. Cincinnati, OH
  10. Chicago, IL

Haberman takes issue with that ‘Senior’ word along with the ‘aging’ word. “What does that make the rest of the populace — juniors?” This space (an unabashed fan of Sperling’s #3 city — sorry, #7; but you’re my #2) concurs. But Great Geezer Towns probably wouldn’t cut it with WHO.

Moving Mom & Dad: 8 months later

“The best thing? Well, there are only three rooms to look for my glasses in.” Nearing the end of her first year after a final move, my sister reports a whole bunch of pluses and only a couple of minuses in her housing choice.

Like millions of other older Americans, my sister Helen and her husband Clare faced the multitude of questions that come with aging in this country: where to live, how to stay active and independent, how to get necessary health care, how to finance it all. After a lifetime in academics and music, they had good friends at home and around the globe, but were beginning to feel isolated in their 4th floor Boston condominium because of limited mobility (Clare has Parkinson’s; they had long since sold the car…) and knew that changes had to be made.

First issue: Housing. Staying in their home was not a good option; though it had plenty of spare room, no family member was available to move in and help. They were far from needing (or being able to afford, for that matter) regular in-home help. Their children were scattered across four states, with families of their own.

The answer for Helen and Clare was Kendal at Ithaca, one of a growing number of retirement communities offering “lifetime” or “continuing community care” in almost every part of the U.S. and many other countries. They chose a two-bedroom, two-bath “cottage” within an easy walking distance of the main facility and its dining room (they have one meal a day there), fitness room, crafts room, library (a large and very well-stocked area where Clare spends most of his disposable time), swimming pool and meeting rooms (where Helen quickly found ways to be useful on multiple committees.) They made the move eight months ago (as reported on this page along with a running bunch of posts on senior housing choices then and since then); I visited again this weekend to see how things are working out. Pretty well. The winter wasn’t all that bad, though April in Ithaca seemed about as cold and ominous as June in San Francisco to this San Franciscan, and they have had no second thoughts.

The bad point: they miss their Boston friends. The good? Not having to worry about home care or upkeep, having a regular cleaning/household helper whom they greatly like, door-to-door transportation to cultural events at nearby Cornell University, Ithaca College and elsewhere, plenty of activities and new good friends, good food (“the desserts are desperately attractive,” Helen says) and health care (mostly right there on the premises.) On this last point, Clare lists one great attraction he sees: “They can’t throw me out.” The crowning bonus, for this fairly happily aging couple, is the proximity of their physician daughter and her husband, who relocated from the west coast to be near their parents, and who are in daily communication and assistance.

Kendal communities are not cheap. Nor are most of the others that offer independent living, assisted living and nursing care in assorted facilities, along the can’t-throw-you-out principle. Helen and Clare paid a hefty lump sum (being able to sell a home you’ve had for decades is the way most people swing this) and their monthly fee, which covers meals, transportation, doctors visits, drugs, etc, etc and etc, is also substantial. They are, though, a good choice for many. One college friend now in such a spot refers to her South Carolina retirement home as “our little corner of paradise;” another very close friend is delighted with her Virginia apartment in a community where her husband now lives in a “memory unit” a few steps away.

If you Google “retirement communities” or “continuing care communities” or similar phrases, literally hundreds of choices pop up. The managers of those facilities can spell out the costs and the benefits; for the pitfalls, it’s a good idea to talk with those who live there or whose loved ones are/have been there.

My demo couple in Ithaca are in the right spot.

Get smarter before the New Year? Sure you can

Scientific proof is limited. But this space, in the interest of staving off dementia while smartening up the general population, has been investigating recent reports on benefits of brain exercise. (One recent report in this space said crossword puzzles aren’t any big brain deal, which is mildly contradicted by the report below, which proves one cannot believe everything one reads online. Still… evidence is coming in.)

Doing crossword puzzles, reading, and playing cards daily may delay the rapid memory decline that occurs if people develop dementia, according to a U.S. study.

Researchers from New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine spent five years following 488 people aged 75 to 85 who did not have dementia at the start of the study.

Participants were tracked for how often they engaged in six endeavors: reading, writing, doing crossword puzzles, playing board or card games, having group discussions and playing music. Almost 1/4 of them developed dementia (that’s the bad news) during the study period. But the more engagement, the slower the decline.

Denise Park, PhD, founder of the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas and a panelist on the recent brain fitness segment of PBS’ Life (Part 2) series, argued against crossword puzzles in this space (Can You Beef Up Your Brain, 12-09-09.) The social component (think tackling a new dance step) of brain exercise, she and many others maintain, is critical. Or the multi-layered element involved in learning to play a musical instrument or taking up photography — Park believes those sorts of endeavors will always beat crossword puzzles and solitary computer games.

Now comes Kathryn Bresnik of ProProfs.com. Bresnik isn’t quite ready to assert that you can improve your cognitive function right this minute by playing online brain games, but she cites a recent report (by Mary Brophy Marcus in USA Today) that the movement is gaining traction:

Computer games have been inching their way into the medical world over the last few years and though your local hospital may not become a mini-arcade, experts say patients can expect to see more gaming in medical settings in the years to come, especially brain games.

That report covered a recent Games for Health Conference in Boston, which for the first time featured a day of sessions specifically focused on gaming and cognitive health, and presentations by researchers from such mildly disparate sites as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment. (Pick which to believe.)

For the past two days, since being alerted to ProProfs.com, I have been sneaking over to their game page, doing things like the Family Word Search or the Quick Calculate math one. Being an admitted novice to computer games, I found it pretty nifty to have that little voice telling me That. Is. Correct. when I did something right, and presenting instant tallies of time and scores.

So, okay, I haven’t made it into the top 50 for this week, and the games I chose are probably designed for 7th graders rather than 70-somethings. But here’s the thing: Every day, my scores are just a tiny bit better. This seems proof, albeit slightly anecdotal, that I am getting smarter. You may want to give it a try. If I can get smart enough to embed the game that the site tells me I can embed into a blog, it will be done at a later date, and perhaps we can poll True/Slant readers for increased cognitive function.

One caveat: While you are doing computer games, you cannot be doing dishes. Or writing blogs, for that matter. Smartness has its price.

via A crossword puzzle a day may delay dementia – Aging- msnbc.com.

Moving Mom & Dad — into a Village

What about moms and dads who really don’t want to move?

The problem of where to go and what to do about housing in the sometimes not-so-golden years has an assortment of solutions for those who prefer (and can afford) the retirement community or any of the multitude of assisted living communities around. But for those who are bound and determined to stay put in the old house or the long-familiar apartment? A collection of obstacles begins to accumulate.

Enter the village.

Swiftly catching on around the country, aging-in-place “villages” are designed to help  members overcome those obstacles by providing a variety of programs and services – while the members stay put. The prototype was Boston’s Beacon Hill Village, founded in 2001, which offers “groceries to Tai Chi to cultural and social activities to home care.” Others have popped up in states ranging from Colorado to New York, Florida to Nebraska, Massachussetts to Hawaii.

San Francisco Village was the second, after Avenidas in Palo Alto, to get off the drawing boards and into action in California. Although each Village differs from others, SFV illustrates many of the attractions that are drawing in the stay-put crowd. The organization began with some local grants and individual donations, and is sustained now by annual membership fees.

Sarah Goldman agreed, after a good bit of arm-twisting, to be a poster girl for SFV in upcoming stories for the neighborhood’s New Fillmore newspaper. Sarah was among the first to join the organization, and in many ways typifies the village member-enthusiast: fit, active and fiercely independent at 80, she plans to stay that way as long as humanly possible. Her first move, as a Village member, was in support of someone older still and desperately in need of help: her landlady. Goldman could see that the landlady, who also lived alone, was becoming forgetful and increasingly unkempt – the distress signals that often propel seniors into care facilities. So she began by talking the landlady into joining also. This paved the way for calling in, with the landlady’s approval, a wide-ranging group of service providers: house cleaners, organizers, financial assistance people, personal care helpers. All had been vetted by SFV. Their help has now enabled both landlady and tenant to keep right on aging in place.

Goldman also quickly started a program patterned after one she had organized when working with an assisted living community. SFV’s play-reading group was an immediate hit among those seeking socialization and intellectual stimulation. Three necessities of life — social, physical and mental fitness — added to issues such as those dealt with by the landlady, add up to the heart of the Village. Members hope that by accessing things like this while staying on familiar turf their golden years may indeed stay shiny.

This one hopes that SFV membership will help keep the contributions of this space emanating from this laptop on this Sacramento Street kitchen counter for a very long time to come.

Co-housing: Not Your Grandmother's Commune

Somewhat like 60 being the new 40, co-housing is the new yesterday’s small town. Think pioneer groups sharing meals around a campfire… then think post-2000 college grads seeking affordable housing and wanting community; or think 60s communes with wifi and central air conditioning. You’ll get an idea of today’s growing U.S. co-housing movement. (The term is written with or without a hyphen.)

At a recent OWL-sponsored panel discussion, two representatives of different (in some ways vastly different) California cohousing projects outlined some of the reasons this option is attractive to Boomers (downsize into simpler lifestyle, find community) and seniors (anticipate future needs, find community) in particular, but multi-generational others as well. The big key word: community. Cohousing villages are designed and self-managed with intention. They range from west coast to east and in between, from simple to posh, urban to rural. Swan’s Market in downtown Oakland, CA is on the National Register of Historic Places in an area fast morphing from down-and-out to up-and- coming. Mosaic Commons in Berlin, MA west of Boston boasts of green space, green planning, green building. Blue Ridge Commons near Charlottesville, VA touts organic gardens and a renovated 1890s farmhouse, while recently completed Great Oak Cohousing, Ann Arbor MI’s second such venture, lists 30-some households which include “about 65 adults” and “about 37 kids.” Cohousing populations are moving targets.

The common thread is the desire for economically and ecologically viable close-community living. Most cohousing villages have at least two or three shared meals per week with everyone taking turns in the communal kitchen, while the rest of the time residents dine at home. Most share other things like laundry space, recreational space and assorted activities. The same occasional conflicts that probably afflicted cave dwellers arise among today’s cohousing residents, but enthusiasm runs rampant.

And increasing numbers of Americans are considering, or at the very least familiar with, the concept. This reporter appeared to be the only person in an overflow audience who had to ask who the oft-mentioned Chuck and Katie were. (Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett; they wrote the book.)

Waterfront Condos: More on the housing dilemma

Waterfront esplanade, expansive views from a sunny terrace, walk to the ballpark — what’s not to love about this housing choice?

Downsizing from a large, Victorian house filled to overflowing with the accumulations of two very active lives, the Langleys of San Francisco decamped, a few months ago, to a new, easy-care, sun-filled two-bedroom condo in the city’s happening-place Mission Bay neighborhood. They love the convenience, the mix of ages and cultures, the freedom from old-house maintenance worries and some unexpected bonuses like new friends living on houseboats from another era who are within conversation range of their 4th floor deck. “We (the new condo development) block the view they used to have all those years,” Judy Langley says, “but there are a lot of  trade-offs like getting the creek (which leads into San Francisco Bay) cleaned up, and the park over there…” For the newcomers, the young dog-walkers on the esplanade below, the middle-aged Chinese couple doing tai chi on the common lawn, it is an urban idyll.

Urban condos, even those without kayaks at the door and aged houseboats for neighbors, are an increasingly popular answer to the downsizing dilemma. But the dilemma remains huge and answers are seldom easy.

On the day the Langleys were hosting an Open House in their new digs, my sister was packing the last boxes from the high-ceilinged Boston condo that’s been her family’s home for decades. She and her husband are headed for a New York retirement community to which a physician daughter will also relocate from the west coast. Elsewhere this weekend a childhood friend was finalizing plans for a move from Northern Virginia to a coastal community where her husband will be able to live in a Memory Unit while she lives independently nearby.

These choices typify the variety of factors that go into contemporary downsizing decision-making: Is it affordable? Will I (or my parents) have the care that’s needed? Can life still be good (or even get better?)

And any of these families might also have considered co-housing. Yet another option for Boomers and Beyonders as well as for younger families and individuals, co-housing in some ways harkens back to a simpler, long-ago lifestyle and in other ways could only work in the 21st century. It was the topic of an OWL-sponsored panel discussion on Saturday, and will be tomorrow’s Boomers and Beyond topic.

The Joys (and Angst) of Housing Choices

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What is it about the term “adult living” that seems so, well, one-foot-in-the-grave to me? Being surely one foot in the grave myself, if one chooses to look at actuarial tables which I do not, you’d think my opinionated mind might be pried slightly more open.

It’s a dilemma. Not whether one is polite and knowledgeable about adult living communities urban or suburban, but how to differentiate — and ultimately make choices among — the often bewildering assortment of housing communities and choices targeting everyone over 50 (and increasingly even below.)

I gave a talk at Rossmoor earlier today, a serene and bucolic adult living/retirement community about 25 miles and 40 degrees from San Francisco. This is no lie; it was 58 in the fog when I left home, 98 in the sun when I arrived. Rossmoor is full of recreational amenities: golf and tennis, choirs and bridge clubs and book groups. You cannot live there unless you are (or are formally attached to someone who is) 55 or older, and if you’re 18 or under you can’t hang around for more than 3 weeks. Rossmoor has its own mildly bewildering housing choices: congregate living, condos, co-ops and big houses on lush lots. It is ranked among the top such senior adult communities in the country and they are everywhere.

Add to these the growing varieties of aging-in-place groups (think Beacon Hill Village in Boston) and the truly bewildering assortment of assisted living facilities. The latter include simple rentals, detached cottages and elegant high rises; you can pay fixed or varying fees, or you can turn over your total estate (if it’s a large one) in return for a promise that you’ll be cared for in style throughout whatever infirmity or affliction arises and unto the grave.

Our friend Berta, widowed not many years ago, made the (possible) mistake of mentioning to her children that the responsibilities of maintaining her tidy, comfortable home were becoming onerous at times. This set off a frenzy of activity among her very active progeny, 3/4 of whom live in far-flung states. In addition to tackling the task of clearing out (“I had to grab a few things I wanted that were about to get thrown away…”) they came up with an assortment of possibilities for the mother whose comfort and well being they value above all else: condos and co-ops and a variety of retirement homes near their own homes, most at price tags more than daunting to someone who grew up in the Depression. Berta hopes to stay put. Most of us do, many of us can’t, and there’s the rub.