Say you’re happy in your ‘hood. The sights are familiar, the neighbors are okay, the comfort level is high. Now say you’re 70-something or 80-something and you need a little help now and then, bringing in the papers, getting to doctors’ appointments, changing light bulbs. Do you really want to pull up roots and move to a totally new environment, re-learn where everything is, make new friends among people who never knew your children (or your parents)? The latter is being chosen every day for or by seniors in America; the former is spurring a movement with an interesting variety of formats under the general heading of Aging in Place. I really want an umbrella acronym for this category, but I don’t really want to be an AIP.
In my father’s apartment building in South Jersey, the older tenants start drifting into the small lobby each day around 1 p.m., taking up positions on chairs and couches. The ostensible reason: The mail is about to arrive. The real reason: They relish a chance to schmooze.
“There’s a lot of discussion about the economy,” Dad reports. “And what the president said about the police and that fellow in Massachusetts.” Lesser issues arise, too. Whose daughter is coming to visit. What is on sale at the ShopRite supermarket.
Twenty-five years ago, a University of Wisconsin professor coined a great term for this kind of residence. It is a naturally occurring retirement community, or NORC. The place wasn’t built for seniors; its tenants are all ages, infants through nonagenarians. But a substantial number of residents have been there long enough to grow old together.
Since he still drives, my father heads out each morning to buy the papers, which get passed from one apartment to another. (God forbid you should squander 50 cents for your own copy and read the headlines before suppertime.) He ferries friends to doctors’ appointments. He benefits, too: his pal Manny comes by several times a day to check on him, and neighbors stock his fridge with soup and strudel.
NORCs exist all over; probably half of Miami Beach, Fla., was a NORC at one time. Watching this little community cope with shopping and banking and constant medical visits, I have wondered why services can’t be brought to these residents. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to have a nurse visit weekly, instead of each person making a laborious trip to a doctor’s office? For the senior van to schedule regular excursions to ShopRite? For the high school orchestra to give concerts in the community room, since so few older residents go out after dark?
A number of NORCs do offer this kind of help. Twenty-five states have NORC supportive service programs, according to the queen of NORCs, Fredda Vladeck, who runs the United Hospital Fund’s Aging in Place Initiative. New York leads the list with 54 NORC programs operating in high-rises, garden apartment complexes and neighborhoods of single-family homes; Indiana comes in second. The common mission of the programs, Ms. Vladeck said, is “transforming communities into good places to grow old.”
NORC’s and their cousins the Village aging-in-place concepts are multiplying, but they’re nothing new. They’ve been around for more than a quarter of a century (if you discount the automatic NORCs that small towns and Native American communities offered in ancient America afforded. And they’re proven effective. “Numerous studies have documented the benefits and potential of NORCs, including a Senate report (PDF), a foundation grant report and a graduate thesis,” Span writes.
So why, after 25 years’ experience, are there not more support programs for the millions of older Americans already living in NORCs, and the millions more to come?
Ms. Vladeck, accustomed to lobbying and testifying and organizing, sounded philosophical. “It’s incubating,” she said. “Sometimes, innovation takes a long time.”
If you want to keep your parents out of nursing homes, or want to stay out of a nursing home yourself, learning about how these alternatives work isn’t a bad way to start the plan. There may not be a long time left, at the rate America’s getting older.