Rethinking senior living

Featured Image: Pixabay

At what age do you turn invisible to society – 65, 70 or 75? It is unfortunate that many seem to think that older people no longer require social interaction after a certain age.

– REENA KAUR BHATT

In most western countries and some of our Asian neighbours, especially Japan and Korea, senior housing is a big thing – many of their elderly live in retirement housing, aged care facilities or nursing homes.

In Malaysia, however, the demand for senior housing has not quite picked up; ageing locals either stay with their children/relatives or children hire maids to care of their elderly parents.

This prevalent trend is not for the lack of senior housing, but rather there is very little demand mainly because of these two reasons:

1) There is a huge misconception over the whole concept; when Malaysians think of senior living, images of dreary homes and decrepit old people pop up.

2) Most Malaysians are bound by the deep-rooted tradition that it is the duty of the children and family to care of the elderly.

Hence, to place your parent or loved one in such a facility could seem like you are dumping them. Ironically, many rather shoulder expensive maid fees rather than risk being judged by their neighbours and extended family. Apparently, hiring a maid to cater your parents’ beck and call is proof enough for filial piety.

What are we taking care of – The elderly or our guilty conscience?

Which begs the question; are we caring for our elderly the right way?

In the pursuit of ‘taking care’ of our parents/loved ones, we forget what they yearn most – social interaction and the feeling of being loved/wanted/useful.

I hail from the small town of Taiping in Perak, where I often patronise the famous lake gardens whenever I am home for the weekend. Each time, I will meet and chat with Mr and Mrs Lee, a 70-plus couple who have retired from their cigar-making business and whose children have flown the coop.

They may be elderly, but the couple never fails to take a long walk every single day TWICE; one in the evening and morning.

Oldies seek interaction and community aspects

This is because the Lees are lonely and crave interaction. With their children abroad, the couple only have their maid for company. At least at the lake gardens, they get to burn away some of the empty hours they face and engage in conversation with other elderly couples.

Source: Getty Images

Based on my observation, I can safely say that the Taiping lake gardens act as a de facto community meeting point for the elder generation – besides walks and chit chat sessions, there are regular aerobic sessions and picnics too.

The thing is not every town/area has its ‘lake gardens’ or a welcoming space which facilitates social interaction. Moreover, many oldies throughout the country are cut off from society due to
restrictions such as traffic conditions, transportation and cost.

Rethinking senior living

Realising the need for social interaction among senior adults, a few foreign stakeholders have made the move to rethink and modify the senior housing model.

Speaking recently at the REHDA Institute CEO series 2017, David Lane, Group Director of Thomson Adsett, a leading international architecture and design firm said, “We’ve built a lot of really beautiful retirement communities in the past, but unfortunately the buildings were designed as ‘gated communities’ and in many ways the residents were completely separated from the rest of the community. Seniors housing should not just be about an alternative real estate solution, rather, developers should consider and factor in the social aspects of living that are important to community life for older people.

He went on to share a few examples of senior housing providers who are doing it right by integrating senior homes with:

1) Universities

Lasell Village in Massachusetts, the USA is a senior housing community located on the campus of Lasell College. Residents have access to continuing education programmes, special classes and recreational clubs and even have the option to serve as counsellors or wardens to the college students.

 

Source: Getty Images

2) Music Academies

Espoo Folkhasan House in Finland houses senior accommodation and a music academy for children. Residents could either be music tutors, volunteers or work at the academy’s cafeteria.

*Images courtesy of Thomson Adsett

Let’s break down silos

The United Nations (UN) defines a country as ageing if 7% of its population is over 65 and Malaysia is set to join the ranks by 2020 – as reported by the Statistics Department, it is estimated that 7.2% of the local population will be older than 65 in three years time. I believe that there will be a growth of care facilities in Malaysia down the road and I hope that these developments will integrate a social or community facet as done by our international examples above. Providing senior adults with lifestyle options will greatly contribute to healthy ageing as well. An active social life promotes higher mental activity, which in turn combats dementia and depression.

Robert DeNiro captures this sentiment perfectly in the movie ‘The Intern’; where his character as a 70-year old retiree said, “The key to staying sane is to keep moving – Get up, get out of the house, go somewhere and do something. I can’t explain it but it makes me feel like I am part of something”. So let’s make it convenient for our elderly to do just that – let’s not forget that we will be in their shoes one day too.

 

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