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Age-Segregated Housing - The Debate

aging social differences elders settings setting activity

Given the great heterogeneity of age-segregated housing types, an abstract and global discussion of the pros and cons of such settings is of limited value because the debatable issues vary greatly from setting to setting. (For a detailed description of the advantages and disadvantages associated with each type of living arrangement for older adults, see Folts and Yeatts; Golant, 1992; and Tilson). One of the overarching themes in the debate has centered around older persons' ability to face their own aging.

Golant (1985) identified three types of elders whose attitude toward their own aging does or does not make them good candidates for age-segregated living. Those who strongly identify with age peers and who cannot relate to a youth culture would feel comfortable in an age-segregated setting. Elders of the second type, too, would prefer an age-segregated setting, but for very different reasons: Comparing themselves to younger persons and trying to measure up to their standards, these elders escape such unfavorable comparison by preferring to live among age peers. Elders of Golant's third type flat-out deny their oldness and can continue to do so by avoiding association with age mates and by seeking out age-integrated settings. Foster and Anderson present a similar argument in which they contrast the "escape-the-system" model of adaptation with the "confront-the-system" model of adaptation. They argue that elders who seek age-segregated settings try to ignore or deny old age by living in places that foster "pseudoactivity" although the authors concede that such settings may enhance the self-image of elders. While both of these models stress individual characteristics and make sense intuitively, they beg the question of why elders might have these feelings.

Jaber Gubrium's socio-environmental model stresses the fit between the level of functioning (activity resources) of a person and the environmental demands (activity norms) of a setting and provides some clues as to why elders might seek out or avoid settings with a given age composition. Age-integrated settings have high activity norms, that is, expectations for a wide variety of activities, while age-segregated settings have low activity norms. Older adults with high activity resources (health, money, social relations, social support, physical mobility) would feel comfortable in a setting with high activity norms but bored in one with low activity norms. Similarly, older adults with low activity resources would feel overwhelmed in a setting with high activity norms but comfortable in one with low activity norms. This model assumes that old persons living in either setting restrict their activities to that setting, which is clearly not the case. Elders living in age-integrated settings often form age-based subgroups, and many elders living in retirement communities have far-reaching ties beyond their housing environment.

Critics of age-segregated settings for older adults argue that such arrangements reflect the profound agism of our society, which pushes elders out of the mainstream of society and causes them to retreat into safe havens, thus isolating them from the rest of society, depriving them of community, preventing them from sharing their skills and wisdom, causing them to lead sad and lonely lives with low morale and no purpose, discouraging them from interacting with young people, and accelerating their mental and physical decline.

Such assertions reflect uninformed prejudice and ignorance of the empirical evidence. Most older persons living in age-segregated settings experience none of these problems. In some sense, many experience the best of two worlds: continued contact with the "outside world" and the benefits of living in a community of persons who have many other things than age in common. Age-segregated housing environments are most successful when their residents come from similar backgrounds and have had similar life experiences. For example, Arlie Hochschild's ethnography of Merrill Court, a congregate housing complex for working class widows, is one of many accounts we have of such settings. Hochschild's study revealed Merrill Court as offering its residents many opportunities for community creation: a rich life of social relations, subgroup formation, continued adherence to the work ethic, shared reminiscence, the freedom of joking about their own aging and impending death as well as continued contact with family and friends outside of Merrill Court.

All age-segregated settings provide opportunities for activities, and many are increasingly incorporating the concept of wellness, which encompasses physical functioning, and psychological, emotional, and spiritual well-being. The presence of age-mates mitigates the suffering caused by some of the losses associated with aging. Elders within age-segregated communities of all types develop networks of informal support. Continuing care retirement communities attract active and well elders who do not end their vital engagement in the community at large. Many find meaning in volunteering, travel, and continued involvement in political activities and civic matters. Early literature on the subject suggested that one of the attractions of retirement communities was that they allowed elders to escape from the world of the work ethic and to pursue leisure activities without being criticized. Subsequent research has shown that there are many other motivating factors for such a move, the most important one being the assurance of long-term care down the road.

Of course, service-rich age-segregated settings will have a considerable number of elders in ill or declining health. It would be absurd to suggest, as some early critics have done (Mumford), that age segregation accelerated such decline. Anticipation of and preparation for the need for care is one major reason older persons move to age-segregated settings. Similarly, studies comparing residents in age-segregated and age-integrated settings on such variables as social cognition (Cohen, Bearison, and Muller) or emotional closeness (Adams) hardly warrant the conclusion that any observed differences are the result of the setting rather than of a variety of individual attributes.

Age-segregated settings bestow on residents a sense of security and a lessened fear of crime, although age segregation by itself is no guarantee for safety. A very visible concentration of elders may actually invite attacks on persons considered easy victims if the housing is located in an unsafe neighborhood. Another benefit of age-segregated living is elders' ability to talk about and even prepare for death in the company of age-mates. On the physical-practical side, such settings offer an array of services and amenities all in one place—transportation, social activities, physical exercise, religious services, chore services, health care—that would be difficult and costly to obtain by frail elders in the community. Residents in such settings also look out for each other, and many derive a sense of well-being by helping frailer residents.

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