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Independent Living Is a Top Priority Among Today's Seniors

05/24/2015 10:56 EDT | Updated 05/24/2016 05:59 EDT

Every day, roughly 10,000 members of the Baby Boomer generation -- those born between 1946 and 1964 -- reach the official retirement age of 65. Many will continue to enjoy a high level of physical and mental health and be better off in multiple aspects than preceding generations. But a growing number will suffer from steep decline and be plagued by debilitating illnesses, some of which could have been prevented in time.

One of the most dramatic consequences of age-related deterioration is loss of independence, and it is more feared by seniors than almost any other outcome. For many, even an untimely death seems preferable to becoming beholden to others, according to surveys.

Not only do most older adults not want to become a burden to their loved ones, nearly all -- 90 per cent of respondents to polls -- plan to live out their days in their own homes instead of entering a retirement facility.

"Aging in place," as it is now widely called, is particularly popular among seniors who cherish the lifestyle they have become accustomed to and wish to maintain for as long as possible. Besides staying indefinitely within one's four walls, it also includes being able to move around safely in neighbourhoods and communities as well as having access to vital resources such as food outlets, public transportation, day-to-day services, places of entertainment, etc.

The concept has also given birth to a fast-growing industry that caters to these exact needs and desires. According to a new report by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, an advocacy group with focus on community building, eliminating obstacles and breaking down barriers that tend to isolate older citizens are important first steps for an aging population's ongoing participating in communal life. Efforts to make urban and suburban surroundings more senior-friendly -- for example by facilitating greater walkability -- can benefit members of all ages and should therefore be universally embraced, the report suggests.

On the other hand, as critics have pointed out, staying put for as long as possible may not always be the best option. The prospect of ending up in an assisted-living establishment, separated from loved ones and surrounded by strangers, is so repulsive to some people that they would rather rot away in their own place before accepting much-needed help, says Dr. Steven M. Golant, a professor of gerontology at the University of Florida.

Despite their advanced age, older people tend to overestimate their strength and ability to cope with everyday challenges on their own. Some of it may have to do with the messages we receive in the media about aging and how much better we all fare compared to our forbearers. It makes some folks feel close to invincible when that is definitely not the case.

The whole "aging-in-place" model is probably being oversold, Dr. Golant argues. It may be a profitable idea for home healthcare providers, builders specializing in home modifications for senior residents, financial institutions offering reverse mortgages, etc. But it is not a one-fits all solution for an aging generation.

"There are many downsides to the aging-in-place experience," he adds. "Obviously there's a good side. [...] But older people are a really diverse lot. Their ability to count on family members is very variable. Their ability to cope with their declines and their losses in health and people is very variable. So to suggest indiscriminately that aging in place is good for everyone is an irresponsible position to take."

On the upside, one might add, it is also welcome news that living independently at any age has become easier in many ways, including through technological innovations and improved services. As everyone else, today's seniors have countless opportunities to stay connected and get assistance if needed. Food can be ordered online, as can transportation and most other services. All this can secure a large degree of independence. What it cannot do is to overcome loneliness and isolation, which unfortunately are also part of aging for so many.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.

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