The broken rib could have been a disaster for Claire Soroko. She had been saying goodbye to friends Christmas Day when she stumbled from an outdoor step and banged into an iron handrail, breaking a bone in her chest. Afterward, she couldn't clean, drive or even dress herself.
"I really don't have anyone," says Soroko, a Park La Brea resident in her 70s. "My daughter and son-in-law are very busy. I couldn't ask them to come and stay with me."
Such accidents can often mean the end of living independently. Twenty percent of falls among elderly people require medical attention, and serious injuries, such as hip fractures, often require nursing-home care.
But today's older Americans are increasingly adamant in their desire to avoid nursing homes or assisted living. And they now have a movement to back them up. Called "aging in place," it has a beautifully simple premise: Keep seniors safe, well-cared for -- and in their homes.
In Soroko's case, more than 500 Park La Brea residents 60 and older have formed a novel network to ensure that its members can remain in their homes despite illness or physical decline -- homes that many have known since the complex opened during World War II. Soroko called the agency's office upon returning from the hospital. By the end of the day, the staff had lined up daily caregivers, transportation to doctor's visits and the hair salon, and visits from neighbors who brought meals and encouragement.
As the nation's demographic shifts to the old and older, such community associations are at the forefront of redefining how older Americans live. About 10% of Americans 65 and older live in nursing homes, assisted living or residential care settings. But that number rises dramatically among people who reach their 80s or 90s. Americans are living longer than ever--and their ranks are growing. The number of people 65 and older is expected to double in the next 2 1/2 decades as 78 million baby boomers, the oldest of whom are turning 62 this year, enter their golden years.
Together with businesses and technological advances, these associations could change the portrait of growing old in America.
Where the heart is
There is simply no place like home -- living surrounded by favorite photographs and worn furniture, familiar smells and the comforting rhythm of the neighborhood, from the thud of the mail arriving each morning to the whoosh of the school bus passing by each afternoon.
"We have an image in our heads that as soon as you retire you sell your home and move to Florida," says Elinor Ginzler, director of livable communities for AARP. "But according to census data, less than 10% of people 60 and older had moved in a five-year period. We're connected to the house we're living in and the neighborhood we're living in."
In fact, 90% of adults 60 and older say they want to stay in their home or community rather than uproot themselves late in life, a 2006 AARP study found.
In the past, there were few resources to help people remain at home amid the problems and frailties of old age. But changing demographics, economics and attitudes are making "aging-in-place" ever more possible.
"The baby boomers are a generation of problem-solvers," says Peter Bell, president of the National Aging in Place Council in Washington, D.C. "We use education, technology and resources to change things -- not just accept them as they are. I think we also recognize we can do things better collectively rather than individually."
Remaining in one's home might even help put the brakes on aging. Older people report a better quality of life, more control, more independence and feeling less stigmatized when they live on their own -- less old, in other words.
Says Peter Notarstefano, director of home- and community-based services for the American Assn. of Homes and Services for the Aging in Washington, D.C.: "I think we have more of an independence mentality now. . . . The seniors now are very different than the seniors 25 years ago. They are more active. Can you see Bob Dylan in a nursing home? I think this generation will want something else."
The marketplace and local governments have begun to respond to these new demands, Ginzler says.
Referrals and requests
The telephone rings every few minutes in the cozy LIFE (Living Independently in a Friendly Environment) office in building 49 in Park La Brea. Seniors call with questions:
"Can you refer me to a dentist within walking distance?"
"What is the name of that company that installs shower grab bars at a decent price?"
"Can I still sign up for the field trip to the Natural History Museum?"
News filters in. Mrs. Abraham went to Cedars last night with back pain. A new play that seniors might like is showing at UCLA. Mr. Barker is going to visit his daughter in Arizona for two weeks.