The Housing Chronicles Blog: The future of housing the elderly

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The future of housing the elderly

Now that the baby boom generation is on the cusp of retiring en masse, their housing needs will have an enormous impact on the building industry. While some will downsize into smaller, urban condos and others move to age-restricted communities, others will want to age in place a long as possible.

For a variety of reasons not usually discussed in polite company, most people don't even want to discuss what will happen when they can no longer live independently and require some assisted care (and today's younger boomers are often part of the 'sandwich generation,' in which they must contend with both children and aging parents).

That's why it's somewhat striking that a young, 19-year-old filmmaker named Andrew Jenks decided to live for 36 days in a Florida assisted living facility. Entitled "Andrew Jenks: Room 338," the finished product is now making its broadcast debut on the pay channel Cinemax (related to HBO). Having gained some notoriety at various film festivals, Andrew manages to do today what those building for seniors will have to do tomorrow if they ever hope to create communities where residents really WANT to live instead of what in many instances are nothing more than human warehouses.

What Andrew and his film crew do is to put a human face to revenue streams and vacancy rates, and it made me wonder if those building such facilities can't do a better job targeting residents of various abilities so the still-lucid aren't forced to share a dinner table each night with those completely unable to carry on a conversation. Sure, it might be an inconvenience, but so is individually working out subprime loans into something more manageable: in other words, it can be done.

From a review at

Jenks articulates this revelation in the form of a question that’s both rewarding and annoying. “We’re all gonna grow old at some point, but does that mean we’re going to be neglected too?” The neglect he witnesses is not intentional, but institutional. The documentary doesn’t focus in any way on the staff or doctors at Harbor Place; only a couple of these workers even speak on camera. But the American impulse and seeming necessity to put senior citizens “away” plainly worries Jenks. It’s an increasingly familiar story, with elders living longer and adult children wrapped up in their own busy lives, with careers and children, and the industry that has developed to serve a range of needs is now thriving.

Even when they go well, without abuses or scandals, such stories are sad. Residents suggest they don’t want to be a bother to their children, that when older folks have already lived their lives, they should allow their kids the chance to live theirs. The film doesn’t pass judgment on the assumption here—that these lives don’t intersect, by some sort of recently accepted social edict—but it does note the verve and boredom of Harbor Place inhabitants, encouraging you to wonder at the choices that seem so inevitable.

Inconvenient, yes. Inevitable? Perhaps only for those who lack creativity.

The producers also encourage screening the film at various events, and it makes me think this could be something interesting for the various Seniors Housing Councils across the country to share with their members. Sometimes goofy and occasionally hard to watch -- such as when we watch a new friend of Andrew's die in the hospital -- it was certainly a hard film to forget.

No comments: