Ruth Ray Karpen is professor emeritus at Wayne State University in Detroit, where she taught and conducted research in gerontology and English studies for 35 years. She is currently a freelance writer and researcher, as well as an adjunct instructor of English at the College of Western Idaho. Her latest book, The Big Move: Life Between the Turning Points (Indiana University Press, 2016), examines one older couple’s move to a continuing-care retirement community.
The number of people over the age of 65 is increasing all over the world, and the “oldest old” — people age 85 and older — are the fastest growing segment of that population. For the first time in history, the number of people over the age of 60 is higher than the number of people under the age of 15. In the City of Boise, 11 percent of the population is over the age of 65, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, and increasing rapidly.
To become age-friendly – “a good place to grow up and to grow old,” according to a recent report from Portland State University’s Institute on Aging – Boise must meet the need for alternative forms of housing, transportation, work, education, social services and community design. Fortunately, a small group of local age activists is working to help meet that need.
THE NEED FOR AGE-FRIENDLY CITY PLANNING
Despite a 2015 rating as one of the top 25 American cities in which to retire (Bankrate.com), Boise is not as “age-friendly” as it should be, according to a recent Boise State University city assessment.
Researchers at Boise State’s Center for the Study of Aging, in conjunction with the City of Boise’s LIV (Lasting, Innovative and Vibrant) initiative, surveyed older adults (average age 72), along with caregivers and service agencies, to determine the assets and barriers to healthy aging in Boise. The researchers asked about access to outdoor and open spaces, transportation and housing, social engagement, communications and community services.
They found that Boise’s older residents need better access to public transportation, public spaces and public services. An important finding of the study is that while Boise offers a range of services for older adults, they are not located in the areas where the highest concentrations of older adults live, and they are not easily accessible by public transportation. Boise also needs more affordable housing within walking distance of shopping areas and services.
In Boise and elsewhere in the U.S., most older people live in the community, in their own homes, and they want to stay there, according to a 2010 AARP, Inc., study. As time passes and they need more assistance, “aging in place” is far more convenient and economical than moving to a continuing-care retirement community (CCRC), an assisted living facility or a nursing home. In fact, only 1 percent of people ages 65-74 and 3 percent of people ages 75-84 across the nation live in nursing homes. An equally small number — 2.7 percent — live in senior housing where one or more supportive services are available. The vast majority of U.S. senior citizens live in single-family homes in the community. They rely on themselves or look to friends and family for support.
Given the aging of the baby boom generation and their increased life expectancies, American cities will become increasingly older in the next decades. There will not be enough assisted-living facilities or nursing homes to accommodate the burgeoning senior population, even if they want to move into them. As Henry Cisneros, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development explains in his introduction to Independent for Life: Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging America, “Americans are aging in traditional homes, age-segregated neighborhoods, and communities that are designed for yesterday’s demographic realities.”
Idaho residents are familiar with this problem. Recently, the Idaho Statesman reported that baby boomers are aging in suburbs designed for younger families. In these areas, health care, shopping, restaurants, recreation and other amenities are not within walking distance, making a car and the ability to drive essential for daily life. Some senior residents are financially trapped in homes that are underwater and can’t afford to remodel or move into homes where they can successfully age in place. Cities and communities must adapt to meet the needs of these residents.
The challenge of aging in place requires thoughtful response from individuals and communities. “Each of us must not only develop our own plan for a long life, but as a society we must find solutions that reflect the needs of older people and the limitations of public funding,” Cisneros says (xiv). He identifies the top three challenges for making cities more livable for people over the age of 65: anticipating what it will require to grow old in one’s current home, knowing that eventually more services will be needed; remodeling or retro-fitting homes for better accessibility and creating alternative living arrangements, such as shared housing, co-housing (individual dwellings organized around common areas) and accessory dwelling units (mother-in-law or “granny” suites); and advocating for change in the design and management of cities and neighborhoods. An age-friendly community offers safe and accessible public transportation, walkable streets, parks and other public spaces, sufficient work and volunteer opportunities and social activities where people of all ages interact.
While most cities are increasingly aware of these needs, the mechanisms for change are slow and often expensive. Initial change will most likely occur at the grassroots level, directed by and for older adults themselves.
BOISE AT HOME: AN AFFORDABLE OPTION
In 2012, a group of age advocates began organizing to make Boise a more age-friendly community. Boise at Home, a non-profit organization located at 1009 W. Fort Street (BoiseAtHome.org), targets people age 50 and over living in Boise and Garden City who need assistance for themselves or family members. By joining Boise at Home, members “can remain at home and get the assistance they need at an affordable cost from a ‘virtual’ village of volunteers and referred providers,” says Diane Ronayne, a founding board member.
Boise at Home is based on the concept of the village full of “good neighbors,” a small group of people committed to the place where they live and the people around them. Most older adults have strong attachments to their homes and communities, according to a 2005 AARP survey of Americans over the age of 50. This is demonstrated in their civic activities, organizational memberships, charitable giving, volunteer work and neighborhood connections.
Eighty-five percent of those surveyed had a conversation with a neighbor beyond saying hello in the past three months, and nearly half knew 10 or more neighbors on a first-name basis. The AARP report concludes that casual neighborly contacts are not only important for “maintaining order, safety, and desirable social behaviors in the neighborhood” (p. 28) but also help develop strong communities overall, with “lower rates of crime, better-maintained homes, and more civil behavior in public places” (p. 24). Such communities are also better able to articulate and protect their interests through local government.
Boise at Home hopes to make a local impact by helping members maintain their homes and stay socially connected to the community. For an annual fee of $500 for individuals or $650 for households, members get help with household tasks such as snow shoveling, light gardening and cleaning, transportation around the city, housesitting and pet care services and assistance with computers, cell phones and other technologies. They can also get companionship (including friendly visits, check-in phone calls and medication reminders, if needed), social and educational opportunities and access to vetted professional services (plumbers, electricians, landscapers, caregivers), often at discounted prices.
Since receiving its 501(c)3 nonprofit status, Boise at Home has signed on 23 members, with a goal of increasing its membership to 55 within the next six months and 150 within the next three years. The group’s business plan is to become self-sustaining through membership fees so it can pay liability insurance and hire a part-time handyman. The organization currently operates with a volunteer board of directors and 17 carefully screened volunteers who provide most of the services, and recently hired an executive director, Brossy Reina, to facilitate outreach and fundraising.
Who joins Boise at Home? “People used to thinking ahead,” says Ronayne. Many members are retired professionals living in the North End, the East End and Garden City. “It helps single women especially,” says Ronayne. “It’s important for women to look ahead and plan. We are blessed to have choices, and we need to use our brains and hearts to decide for ourselves how we want to live.” She mentions one sight-impaired woman who formerly spent over $500 a month on the services that Boise at Home now provides for an entire year. The organization targets all older adults, including couples, who are still fairly active and in reasonably good health.
PART OF A WORLDWIDE MOVEMENT
Boise at Home is part of a worldwide “village movement.” Villages are consumer-driven organizations usually led by older adults. They model a small village in which residents interact and assist one another. They provide various forms of support to enhance the social engagement, independence and well being of their members through social activities, volunteer opportunities, service referral and direct assistance. The first village was formed in 2001 in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston. There are now 190 villages across the United States, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands and 150 more in development. Some villages have as many as 500 members and are able to provide scholarships or discounted rates for those who can’t afford to join. A village-to-village network has been established in the U.S. to assist with the development and maintenance of villages and to facilitate communication, and the World Health Organization has developed a global network to link villages around the world.
As a member of the network, Boise at Home sponsored a visit in June by National Director Natalie Galucia, who provided the keynote address at the Justice Alliance for Vulnerable Adults (JAVA) conference at Boise State. In an interview after her talk, Galucia said that village members are people who “understand and appreciate the value of support,” and often buy memberships as a kind of insurance policy, before they actually need assistance. They know that a single accident or event, like a broken foot or a period of recovery from surgery, can make them dependent on others. Even if they have children who can help, many do not want to burden them. In joining a village, older adults can rely on their peers for help. Sometimes this makes it possible to recover at home rather than in a nursing home or rehabilitation facility.
Galucia considers the village concept a grassroots social movement that benefits people of all ages. Many villages partner with public schools to provide tutoring and other services and participate in research through local hospitals and universities. They also meet with city officials to promote changes in the design and structure of city streets and neighborhoods, and some even provide advocacy training for other neighborhood organizations. Villages “ensure access for everyone, not just older adults,” Galucia says. “Wider sidewalks are good for strollers and bikes as well as wheelchairs.”
Galucia takes her own advocacy role seriously, as do the founding members of Boise at Home. During her visit, she and Ronayne, along with Boise at Home Vice-President Brittney Scigliano, met in the mayor’s office with state and local policy makers and health care representatives. Also present was Sarah Toevs, director of the Boise State Center for the Study of Aging, who coordinated the city assessment. The topic: how to make Boise a better place to grow old.
Diana Lachiondo, director of community partnerships for the Office of the Mayor, agreed that the public transportation issue, which affects many people in Boise, is a problem the city is “constantly seeking to improve despite financial limitations.” She noted that Idaho is one of two states that do not have either state funding for alternative transportation or local authority to seek funds for it. Despite this challenge, she said, “We are always looking for ways to improve” and mentioned the ongoing efforts of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to refine program offerings and to place them in locations that better meet the needs of Boise’s older residents.
After spending a few days in Idaho, Galucia was enthusiastic about the prospects of a village in Boise. “I think it’s the perfect city for a village. It’s got a lot of history, and it seems very close knit. People who have lived here a long time are very committed to the area.”
Ronayne, a Boise resident for over 35 years, agrees. “It’s a small enough place where you can create an infrastructure to enable change.” She knows what she’s talking about. She has spent most of her life trying to change things, first as a peace activist living in Berkeley in the 1960s, then as a member of the Twin Falls Planning and Zoning Commission in the 1970s, and, after she moved in 1980, as a member of the Boise Planning and Zoning Commission, where she helped update the city’s comprehensive land use plan to protect open space and create livable urban neighborhoods. In the 1990s she helped organize the Boise Neighborhood Alliance, an umbrella group that assisted citizens in developing their own neighborhood associations and convened them in partnership with the city to discuss common interests. Over the years, she has helped develop 12 non-profit organizations.
Ronayne and the other founding members of Boise at Home are typical of village board members nationwide, which Galucia describes as “really strong, politically minded, active, diverse people.” The Boise at Home board of directors certainly fits this description. Chair Susan Graham has been practicing law in Idaho for over 35 years, specializing in elder law. Vice President Brittney Scigliano also serves as Treasurer and Grant Coordinator for the East End Neighborhood Association, and Board Treasurer Shari Panter has practiced public accounting in the Treasure Valley for over 15 years, helping several non-profits acquire their IRS tax-exempt status. The other board members have experience with city design and community development, nonprofit leadership and support services for older and disabled adults.
All but one board member is over the age of 50; several are retired and hoping to age in place themselves. They don’t all consider themselves “social activists” in starting Boise at Home, but they do recognize the social value of their efforts. “I tend to think of us more as people focused on making life better for others and in turn, ourselves,” says board member Roger Simon, retired director of the Idaho Food Bank, in his profile on the Boise at Home website. “Living with dignity, safety, community integration and independence can be the true culmination of a meaningful life. I believe this for myself and am driven to help make this true for others by being a Boise at Home board member.”
Ronayne calls this “enlightened self interest,” which is a different kind of activism from the demonstrating and organizing she did earlier in life. “This is more subtle – warring from within,” she says. She finds out what motivates people — in this case the desire to live as independently as possible in their own homes for as long as they can — and gets them to act on it.
This is how grassroots movements work. They start with individuals recognizing the need to make a change in their own lives and connecting with others who have similar needs. Together, they advocate for change on behalf of themselves and their communities. As the AARP report on beyond-50 communities concludes, “the vision of a livable community is more than a goal; it is also a call to boomers and their parents to become involved in their community as well as to public officials to seek out residents when planning and making change” (p. 92).
Ronayne looks around her aging home, perched on a steep slant in the foothills and notes that she is 70 and her husband is 76. She is speaking for herself, as well as current and future members of Boise at Home when she says, “We’re not just going to sit here and do nothing.”