I just finished writing an article for the Journal on Active Aging that challenges current senior living models. The concept is simple. What if we viewed frail older adults as assets to the greater community rather than just a vulnerable group who needs to be taken care of? What if we stopped focusing on disabilities and focused instead on possibilities by creating purpose-driven senior living communities.
Disabilities cause specific problems regardless of age, yet it's disturbing to compare attitudes, expectations and opportunities available to young disabled people with those available to frail older adults. Young people with disabilities are given encouragement, strategies, and opportunities to excel in-spite of disabilities. Frail older adults are placed in age-restricted communities and given strategies to cope with functional deficits and disabilities. There is a huge difference between excelling and coping.
If we treated frail adults the same as young disabled adults; instead of building senior housing next to hospitals (message = expect a health crisis) we would build next to schools, food-banks, the Humane Society,or other understaffed and underfunded community initiatives. Instead of beautiful lawns the residents could grow organic fruits and vegetables for the food bank, or a living history farm could be developed and staffed by residents to provide educational opportunities for local children.
We must learn from history to prevent the tragic waste of human potential imposed by low expectations. The Disability Movement proved that people with profound disabilities are capable of amazing things when they believe in possibilities and are given opportunities. It's time to re-evaluate existing senior living models and explore how attitudes, expectations and environments impact outcomes. We have the insight, now we just need the vision and determination to support a dramatic shift in perspective.