No one can predict for sure if he or she will win the aging lottery. We all hope for the best, but there is no telling what afflictions fate will visit upon us nor at what age. What is predictable, however, is that for baby boomers and their “senior” elders, it is likely there will not be enough doctors, nurses and care facilities to go around when we need them. Here’s why:
There are 78 million baby boomers in the U.S., the oldest of whom are just beginning to retire and the rest will follow year after year. Coming up behind them, born between 1965 and 1982, is Generation X of whom there are only 59 million, and logic suggests there will be proportionately fewer health care providers than now. There are many other hard-choice ramifications of this population shift to be addressed, but let’s take the selfish one today: Who will care for you and me when we need it?
One good answer is: each other.
News stories about older single, divorced and widowed women joining forces to spend their old age together are appearing with increasing frequency, most recently at twincities.com [free registration required] via The New York Times.
Given the looming age demographics, it is welcome news that interest in these alliances is gaining momentum and already mitigating the fears of women who are pioneering these new kinds of households. Writes Jane Gross:
“Mary MacLellan, who spent down her retirement savings caring for her mother after she broke a hip, wondered, ‘What in the name of God will become of me?’ But her worries eased when she and six other women in Nova Scotia, ages 50 to 68, began discussing living together.”
We could all ease our worries by planning for this kind of living arrangement even before we need it. It is an aspect of what I call Responsible Aging. We can share the pleasures of growing older together while also taking charge of our own and one another’s well-being to the greatest extent possible, relying on what will be a heavily overburdened healthcare system for only the most urgent conditions.
This is not a new idea. Friends and acquaintances and I have been noodling it around in general conversation for two or three decades although our version includes men, unlike the women-only households being discussed in news pieces so far:
“Men do not seem to entertain comparable ideas,” writes Ms. Gross. “Dennis Kodner, executive director of the Brookdale Center on Aging, at Hunter College in New York, says all the men he knows expect that women will care for them. ‘We don’t really have those kinds of friendships,’ Kodner said.”
If that’s so, men are going to have to get used to the idea of shared responsibility, and I don’t believe it’s necessary for housemates to have been life-long, intimate friends to succeed in a group household. I think you need similar sensibilities, mutual respect and a lot of room. Actress Bette Davis said many years ago that a marriage can't survive without separate bathrooms. I agree and I’m pretty sure that applies in these new kinds of living arrangements too.
However it works - and many of the details and legalities are still to be invented - it’s a good thing to help remove a burden from the generation coming up behind us. And whether or not you win the aging lottery, it is also good not to be old and alone.