Imagine all the people in one area caring for each other. It sounds pie in the sky, but in Westchester County, N.Y., a network of “care villages” created to support elderly residents is breaking down generational barriers, making older people there safer and providing a model that may solve the problems of an aging population.
“When I grew up in the '50s, you had to be available to every older person on the block — to go to the store for them, whatever they needed you to do,” says Mae Carpenter, who spent many hours on the odious task of stretching lace for neighbor ladies. But in today’s tech-heavy, transient world, relatives often live far away and neighbors don’t know each other the way they did then.
This disconnection often breeds fear, resentment and decreased engagement, creating a cycle of isolation, says Carpenter, who’s been the commissioner of the county’s Department of Senior Programs and Services since 2001.
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But in Westchester County, more than 200 networks bring neighbors, houses of worship, clubs, tenants’ associations and high school and college students together in multigenerational volunteer communities that take care of elderly residents and support the primary caregivers who can’t do it all alone.
In short, programs instituted by the county are providing young people with exposure to older people, creating intergenerational win-win relationships and making the area more livable for its aging population.
Teaching Empathy to Students
One of the keys to making this happen was teaching empathy to the area's younger inhabitants.
“Young people are teaching older people in senior centers and nursing homes how to use computers. Before they are assigned, they are trained and even do scenarios where we simulate conditions they might witness in older people to create that sensitivity and awareness,” Carpenter says. The students might learn what it’s like to experience vision loss, for example, or to have arthritis in their hands.
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“Students get a chance to see what happens if you cause an accident to an older person,” Carpenter adds. “This can be the end of their lives as they know it.”
In turn, older people serve as reading mentors for younger people.
How Boomers Are Helped, Too
These programs are also a win for boomers When people in the community of all ages volunteer to work with older people, that takes some pressure off those in the caregiving stage and lays the groundwork for addressing the needs of the aging boomer population.
According to a Pew Research Center report on attitudes about aging, the U.S. is one of the few countries where the public believes people are “primarily responsible for their own well-being in old age.”
Carpenter knows that won’t work. As people age, they may need rides to medical appointments, a safe place to stay when the electricity goes out, help caring for pets and lots of other non-medical services. And as boomers become seniors, she says, their challenges will be magnified by a one-two punch of a larger aging population and fewer related caregivers.
“Boomers may be one of seven caregivers for an older adult. But for the boomers, there will probably be only three caregivers. And those three are going to have six to eight sets of older relatives to take care of because you’ve had divorces and remarriages and people are living longer,” Carpenter says. “It’s really becoming a frightening situation in terms of who’s going be there to take care for the new seniors.”
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The care village model provides hope — and even helps prepare college students for their careers in a world where, according to Pew, “one in five U.S. residents are expected to be 65 and older by mid-century, greater than the share of seniors in the population of Florida today.”
With that in mind, Westchester County taps students in the fields of law, marketing, architecture, nursing, social work and finance, among others, to work with seniors as part of their field work. “Regardless of the field that you might be going in, with our population, you’re going to be dealing with an aging population,” Carpenter says. “If you’re going to be serving the public, you’re going to be serving older people. And you’re going to have to be patient.”
New Attitudes All Around
She has seen attitudes change dramatically as students get to know older residents in their community. She likes to talk about one student who referred to the elderly as “greedy geezers” until he did some personal research. After talking to his elderly neighbors and visiting people living in senior housing, he felt embarrassed about his initial attitudes and was inspired to become an advocate for seniors.
There’s a ripple effect once the young and old get to know one another.
“Now you know who your neighbors are because you’ve formed a livable community village. They’re having backyard barbecues. They’re discussing what some members might need. When we had Hurricane Sandy, village members were able to stay in the homes of older people who were afraid to be alone without electricity or to bring them to their home,” Carpenter says. “It’s getting back to basics. We don’t have enough tax dollars to replace the compassion and care that human beings can provide one to another.”