Unlikely as it seems with both the economy and the housing industry in such turmoil, I have a surefire way to make a fortune: design and build cost-effective, safe, comfortable, down-sized homes for our senior senior citizens, people like my father. They exist, of course, in some places, but usually far out of town, built around a man-made lake and ghetto-ized by gates and age-restrictions. What’s wrong with affordable senior housing within everyday normal urban and suburban communities? Where, after all, are *we* going to live when we don’t need 3500 square feet anymore?
This tirade comes to you courtesy of several years of intermittent looking for a place to move my dad. My sisters – the internist and the physical therapist – and I live in Dallas. He’s in Sarasota fiercely – and to date successfully -- defending his independence from within the 2-bedroom condo he bought in 2002. Now 87, he’s more fragile and we’re tired of running to Florida at the drop of a hat (or the medical equivalent) when it makes much more sense for him to live near us. It’s not as if we’re moving him out of the family homestead; we’re just moving him out of Florida so we can give him the proper attention and care. But we have no place to put him.
The rental units scattered throughout the city, regardless of neighborhood, are built for the young, the transient, and the poor. They’re tacky and over-priced, especially when the “cool” quotient has no relevance whatsoever to a man like my dad. (Think aluminum windows, hollow doors, tiny hallways, no molding, no woodwork, tub showers, and ersatz wood floors which, taken together, do not a “home” make.) The luxury high-rises which sprouted like sunflowers in numerous once-vacant lots downtown are, indeed, luxurious. And priced accordingly. Few retirees old enough to remember the Depression (the last one, that is) have the multi-millions it would cost to move to, say, the Ritz, or the Azure, or One Arts Plaza; and even if they did, they wouldn’t risk it now. No way. My dad’s sort of a country boy, too; real high rises intimidate him and he prefers grass to concrete.
So is there nothing in between? We’re looking. The three of us live north, south and east in the northeastern half of the city, forming an equilateral triangle, 8 miles a side, of neighborhood possibilities that would place Dad near us. Most of the homes we might lease or buy are simply too big for an old man – too many steps from the bedroom to the kitchen, too much space to knock around in and air condition, taxes that are too high, yards he doesn’t really need to maintain. We looked at buying a condo in a mid-level building, a great building, really, with a good price and a perfect floor plan, including a walk-in shower. But the maintenance fees were outrageous. And, again, to buy property in this economy and commit my Dad (and his estate) to monthly charges equivalent to half his pre-tax income simply isn’t prudent when we can’t know if or when we could re-sell. So we asked about leasing that condo or another like it. The real estate market may have tanked, but greed, believe me, lives on. The prices were astronomical. We looked, too, at newer, but less cool apartment buildings where, for example, middle-aged divorcees might move right after a split. They’re fine; they’re nice enough; but there’s something about them that screams “temporary,” and no one has given a thought to accommodating the elderly. Garden tubs do not make for safe bathing; and garden tubs are the only option.
The very elderly are, it seems, destined for the old age ghetto, relegated to institutional accommodations which are, at their best, dormitory-like, and at their worst, like prisons. And if it’s not depressing enough to live among only one demographic – and the one with walkers and wheelchairs, at that – then you have the “comfort” of having a nursing home right across the way. This is not going to be an acceptable option for me; what makes us think it should work for our parents?
But what would work? For lots of reasons, I don’t think we will revert back to the time when the ancients moved in with their kids. So let’s forge ahead. Is it possible to build good-quality, affordable, physically appropriate habitats for older, weaker citizens within communities of all ages and many interests? Can we not create space that affirms dignity and differing degrees of independence? Can builders accommodate aging couples growing old, and even decrepit together? Can floor plans be flexible enough that one man’s study is another’s home health care center? Can’t we build bathrooms that don’t scream “handicapped” but nevertheless offer comfort and safety? I’m sure we can. We just haven’t yet.
My dad has for several years framed his eventual move to Dallas as “coming to Dallas to die.” The housing options we have been able to find for him so far more or less reflect that vision. And that’s what’s wrong with them. He needs to come here to *live* – a few more years, or whatever. That’s the invitation I want his place to issue. That’s what I’m looking for.
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