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A-Team - SmartLiving 360 blog

Who’s Your A-Team?

I probably watched too much TV as a child. A Gen-Xer, I consumed many of the iconic shows of the ’80s, including The A-Team. It was one of my favorites with Hannibal, Faceman, Murdock, and B.A. — played by Mr. T – defying the odds to get the job done. If someone was in trouble, a call to the A-Team would save the day.

I was reminded of the A-Team as a recent guest on the Dr. Cloud Show Live to talk about the intersection of place, including housing, and successful aging. One question particularly struck me. A caller asked: How can I successfully age on my own? How can I manage all that’s necessary, from housing to health to health care to finances to purpose and beyond, by myself?

The answer: You can’t.

Successful aging is a team sport.

Unfortunately, not enough of us have our own A-Team. One of the great successes of our modern age is increasing longevity. Researchers predict that half of babies born today in developed countries will live to at least 100 years of age. However, a long life is only a positive if paired with a matching health span and wealth span. It is best to create a plan that includes others to help you.

The reality is that successful aging is incredibly complicated and multi-faceted. Even with the Internet and social media, it’s impossible to stay on top of everything. It requires much more than information collection. Setbacks and curveballs are inevitable. These hurdles require emotional support and at least an extra pair of hands.

This poses a challenge for singles and couples. More than a one-third of people 65 and older, including nearly half of women, are single; 2 million of these people do not have children and are described as “Solo Agers” by author Sara Geber. In absence of a partner or children, these individuals must create a support network. But it can also be a challenge for couples. It’s unrealistic to expect a spouse to handle all that’s required to help you age successfully. No one person can do it all.

Successful aging is a team sport (Source: National Senior Games)

Creating Your A-Team

A recommended approach is to create your own A-Team. An A-Team may include a talented and committed combination of people ranging from family and friends to professionals and subject matter experts. Here are some of the areas to think about:

  • Social Connection. Who do you enjoy spending time with? Who will help you no matter what? The longer we live, the more likely we will need to rekindle existing friendships and create new ones. We need to find our kin.
  • Exercise Buddies. Exercise is critical for healthy aging, and its powerful effects are even greater if pursued in tandem with others.  Do you have friends to walk or jog the neighborhood?
  • Health Advocate. It’s easy to get lost in our complicated health care system. It is important to have someone looking out for you who has knowledge of your condition and of the health care system. Do you have a family member or friend who can help in this area?
  • Health Care Professionals. A primary care physician who knows your health history, genuinely cares about your health and has access to a network of quality specialists is vital. Consider making an appointment to better get to know your family doctor and provide an update on your current health.
  • Legal Advisor. Getting key documents in order, including a will and health care directives, is essential. Seek recommendations or online resources to make sure key documents are prepared.

Being Part of Someone Else’s A-Team

The best relationships are reciprocal. Consider not just how to build your own A-Team but how to be a member of someone else’s A-Team. Many of us could use help.

There are benefits of being a member of someone else’s A-Team. It can provide purpose which is one of the best predictors of happiness. It can be valuable to be needed and be in a position to help others.

Adult children are often key members of their parents’ A-Team. However, adult children must not assume too much responsibility and make sure that their parents have a team of support. Adult children trying to be a one-person A-Team is a recipe for failure.

Pocket neighborhoods and shared spaces can make it easier to get to know neighbors (Source: Patrick Schreiber)

The Role of Place

Place has a significant role in cultivating your A-Team. At least some members of your A-Team should be local. Face-to-face connections make a difference. It’s impossible to have your A-Team only exist on Facebook.

Consider your community and neighborhood. Do you know your neighbors? Do you have close friends that you can see on a regular basis? For older adults, the best places to live are often where support structures are in place. A lack of sufficient support may be reason enough to trigger a move. Where you live matters, including in finding your A-Team.

The Time is Now to Create Your A-Team

In the famous words of Mr. T, I “pity the fool” who does not make time and effort to assemble an A-Team. To be fair, this is hard work and may require resources. At a minimum, we should recognize the significance of successful aging as a team sport and be resourceful in attracting others to join our journey.

Dr. Cloud points out that people should look to build their team at a young age, as early as their 30s. My A-Team is a work in progress, partially because I recently moved to a new area. I hope my answer to the talk show caller was instructive, but the question was an important reminder for me. I’ve got some work to do and so may you.

Ryan is an expert speaker in the aging industry. Want to have Ryan speak at your event? Find out more.


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Should You Move?

Should You Move?

On average, people move 12 times over their lifetime. Demographers attribute most moves to changes in life circumstances: new job, marriage, kids, and so on. The data bears it out. Most moves are front-end loaded. By age 45, the expected number of moves is shy of 3.

But what about 2020? This year has been a litany of body blows from a pandemic, economic recession, political strife, urban unrest, hurricanes and fires. There are plenty of reasons to wonder if your current home is the best place to weather these times, irrespective of whether there is a change in life circumstances.

While the media has highlighted people moving, in some cases with buyers purchasing houses across the country without having physically seen them, the trend may be overblown. Many of the recent moves may be people accelerating a decision that was already in the works. For others, a move may be temporary until life returns to normal.

Regardless, it is best to carefully weigh moving to a new location, particularly as we get older.

Over 400 Age-Friendly Communities Nationwide (Source: AARP)

Pros of Moving

Moving can offer the prospect of being part of a better environment.

Climate change is an increasing concern, with some places affected more than others. I have a friend who lives in Northern California who may move out of state due to the increasing frequency of wildfires. For him and his wife, it’s not just the risk of losing their home, it is the ongoing stress from the threat of a fire that hinders peace of mind. They find it hard to sleep during the ever-increasing wildfire season.

Where you live matters. If you are in a place where are you not flourishing, better alternatives exist. If you are socially isolated, finding a place where it is easy to make friends could be worthwhile. If you live a sedentary lifestyle but wish to be more active, a move to a locale where activity is the norm could be helpful.

Moving can elevate financial wellbeing. For homeowners, selling a home and moving into a less expensive rental apartment or house can free up capital to help fund retirement. Homeowners are often not aware of the true costs of ownership and the risks of having a meaningful illiquid asset.

Lastly, a move can help with successful aging. There are over 400 age-friendly communities in the country. These communities have taken specific steps, through outdoor spaces and buildings, transportation, housing and more, to make life work better for all ages. A home in an age-friendly community with age-friendly features, such as single-story living and bathrooms with slip-resistant tiles, can be a wise choice for the long-term.

Cons of Moving

One of the biggest risks is assuming that a new location will necessarily lead to a better life. If you’ve lived in a place for a while, you likely have a network of friends and knowledge of the area, a valuable commodity that takes time and effort to replicate in another place. The elements that you appreciate about your current home may not be possible in a new environment. A move may lead to a worse situation.

Moving is expensive and takes energy. If a move involves a house sale, transaction fees and taxes can be meaningful. Moving costs, especially if across regions, can be many thousands of dollars. It also requires a lot of energy to move, particularly if there is downsizing involved. Decluttering can be exhausting.

The wrong move can be hard to undo. Given the cost and energy involved, it can be difficult to return to your prior life if you so desire. When moving, it is safe to assume that you will not be able to recreate your prior life.

Moving, decluttering and downsizing is a chore (Source: Wisconsin Public Radio)

Best to be Patient

The headlines are not encouraging these days. There can be a temptation to make a change in the hope that change can improve our lives.

Chip Conley, best-selling author and founder of the Modern Elder Academy, lived in San Francisco for decades before realizing shortly before the pandemic that he needed a change of scene. It was a challenge for him to leave close friends and a place with many memories, but his soul was ready for something different. It was a good change.

Chip’s story may be the exception. For most of us, we may be best to stay where we are unless there is an overriding need for change. There are ways to improve your wellbeing without necessarily moving. Even a modest renovation can go a long way toward making a place work better for the long haul.

The best strategy may be to be patient and make sure you make a move at the right time and to the right place, if a move is required at all. This is far better than making a panic move. I suspect in the coming years we will hear stories of panic moves from 2020 that didn’t work out as well as envisioned.

Ryan is an expert speaker in the aging industry. Want to have Ryan speak at your event? Find out more.


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Community as a Technical Term

Community as a Technical Term

The word “unprecedented” has been used a lot during the pandemic. Nearly 75% of public companies reporting their earnings in the spring used this word, including IBM which used it seven times. Google Trends shows that searches for the word have spiked about five times higher than ever before. That is unprecedented.

The fact is that words and their definitions matter. Excessive use dilutes significance. Broad definitions water down meaning. The word unprecedented may have already lost its power.

A Proper Definition of Community            

Consider “community.” According to Webster’s, community is a “unified body of individuals such as people with common interests living in a particular area.” Master plan developers routinely describe subdivisions as communities. Apartment developers do the same for apartments. I’ve even seen empty buildings described as communities by their creators. Has the use and definition of community become too broad?

What if community had a narrower definition? According to Charles Vogl in his book, The Art of Community, community is defined as a “group of individuals who share a mutual concern for one another’s welfare.” This definition would limit the word’s use and give it more significance.

The pandemic has been a reminder that community – the more technical definition – is critical for wellbeing. People with strong social connections have better immune systems, better brain health, and they sleep better. This definition of community is more involved than simply living in an area with people with shared interests.

Gated community
Does this gated community deserve to be called a community? (Source: RealManage)

Do You Live in a Community?

Do you live in a place where others care for you and, just as important, you care for others? As Warren Buffet says, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” The pandemic has likely revealed the truth on whether you have community or not. If you don’t, it is not necessarily a simple fix.

Community doesn’t just happen. It takes work and relies on reciprocal relationships. It’s one thing to recall the name of your neighbor, but a completely different thing to truly know your neighbor. And, it’s rare: only about a quarter of Americans purport to know all or most of their neighbors. When you know your neighbors, you’re informed about ways to support them. Equally important is for neighbors to get to know you. There’s a level of mutual vulnerability.

It takes time. For nine years, we lived in a neighborhood that is a community. People know each other and are quick to help and receive help. It is a natural back and forth. No one keeps score. A year ago, we moved to a new neighborhood and we are in the process of determining whether it will be a community for us. Our daughter recently delivered care packages to older adults in our neighborhood. I was encouraged when she received a call from a recipient to say thank you and also to see how she was faring. This is mutual concern.

Capitol Hill neighborhood
Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C. has a reputation for strong community (Source: The Wandering Road)

Building & Finding Community

If you don’t have community, there are two options: build or join.

Charles Vogl provides tips for community builders. His seven principles include: boundary, initiation, rituals, temple (or place), stories, symbols and inner rings. Vogel’s advice is important because, unlike a passive building, a community is active and changing. It requires investment and leaders to get involved. Community can’t be taken for granted. Places change as do the cultures around them.

An alternative to building community is to join one. There may be opportunities to engage in your area by joining a neighborhood association, connecting into a faith community or volunteering at a local school. In some cases, however, a search for community may require moving.

Finding community can be an important but challenging issue for older adults, particularly when their current home lacks social connection. Jill Vitale-Aussem, CEO of the Eden Alternative, is an expert in creating community for older adults. In her recent book, Disrupting the Status Quo of Senior Living, she highlights that too often senior living errs on the side of safety, like a hospital, or on service like a hotel. It’s not that safety and service are unimportant – particularly during a pandemic – but these approaches often don’t adequately engage the human side. True communities require active engagement where people act as citizens, not patients or consumers. Older adults searching for community need to look far beyond websites and marketing collateral to get a sense of whether a particular senior living location is a community or just a building serving older people.

Use the Narrow Definition of Community

Be on the lookout for “community.” Ask yourself whether the term is properly applied. In my experience, the claim of community is often unsubstantiated. Community anchored in mutual concern is a good thing for your health at all times, but particularly when the next unprecedented event hits.

Ryan is an expert speaker in the aging industry. Want to have Ryan speak at your event? Find out more.


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Places change - New York City

Places Change

The coronavirus epidemic has highlighted the importance of place in our lives. Certain countries have been able to contain the outbreak and lower fatality risks associated with the disease. Others have not. In the U.S., we have seen a wide range of outcomes within regions, states and metropolitan areas. In a number of respects, our individual health has had more to do with where we live than how well we practice social distancing.

Places, like people, are not static. They change. Sometimes imperceptibly, other times more obviously. Sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. And, given the fact that where you live matters, ensuring that you are in a spot appropriate for you, particularly as you age, may not be a simple exercise.

Uncertainty of Urban Environments

Take urban environments. I have a friend in her 70s living in the Northeast, who traded a bucolic, suburban lifestyle for an active, urban one. Her suburban life required a car, and she felt socially isolated as she increasingly knew fewer of her neighbors. Her move into a downtown apartment allowed her to walk to various amenities and regularly participate in social events, including seeing nearby friends and family.

Then covid hit. Her place changed dramatically. She has been confined to her apartment and has been unable to meet new acquaintances or see friends and family. She has also felt less safe, with protesting and riots near her home.

While these current conditions may be temporary until the epidemic subsides, there may be lasting changes to urban environments that make living there less compelling. Remote work has been surprisingly productive. Most large companies have not seen any productivity loss and more than quarter have reported a productivity increase. Researchers speculate that nearly half of companies may allow as many as 40% of their employees who switched to remote work during the pandemic to continue doing so after the crisis, at least in part. Fewer workers downtown may result in less congestion, but it also translates to less demand for restaurants and various amenities that help create the energy of cities, as well as a critical loss of tax revenue for city services.

Percentage change in murder and robbery from 2019 to 2020

Safety may become a greater issue for cities, too. For years, crime has fallen dramatically in the U.S. Since 1993, crime in urban environments has fallen nearly 60%. However, in 2020, there has already been a noticeable uptick in crime in various large cities across the country. No doubt, recent rioting contributes to these figures, and this activity may be more of a moment in time than a trend. However, as author and urban studies professor Joel Kotkin points out, “Safety is a prerequisite for urban growth. I can’t see how cities can thrive if they’re unsafe.” Safety, even just its perception, is perhaps even more important as we age.

Given these challenges, coupled with the high cost of living in large cities, more people may opt to live in smaller cities or more dense suburban areas that provide some of the urban lifestyle benefits but without some of the current drawbacks of larger urban environments.

Places Where Healthy Aging is Getting Easier

If certain urban areas may be getting more difficult, where is it getting easier? The network of age-friendly states and communities can be a guide. There are nearly 500 communities covering nearly 1/3 of the country that have signed up for a process to make themselves age-friendly through an assessment, planning, implementation and evaluation. This process can lead to a number of potentially valuable interventions, ranging from better transportations options, improved housing and more age-friendly infrastructure in general, including dedicated walking and biking areas.

Places where healthy aging is getting easier tend to benefit from strong political leadership and available resources for older adults. Cities with strained budgets or other high priority issues, including public safety, may simply not have the bandwidth to make their places work better for an aging population. The Milken Institute’s Mayor’s Pledge is encouraging civic leaders to commit to purposeful, healthy aging at the metropolitan level and is another resource to identify leading places.

Springfield, MA
Springfield, MA has been focused on various age-friendly initiatives (Source NextAvenue via josepha/Flickr)

Springfield, MA, a city with a population of about 150,000, is an interesting example of a city that is operating on all cylinders as an attractive place for older people.  In this case, a mayor is helping to create a momentum for the city and bring together various stakeholders. It is the first city to complete the age-friendly trifecta: Age-Friendly City, Age-Friendly Health System and Dementia-Friendly city.

Implications

Pay attention. See what’s happening in your current environment. If it is becoming better as you age, appreciate your good fortune. If it the environment is getting more difficult, see what you can do to mitigate its effects. It may even become an opportunity to get to know your neighbors better. As crime became a greater concern in our old neighborhood, neighbors banded together to walk the streets and create a text thread for regular communication. This intervention helped.

If you are considering a move to a new place, it is valuable not just to get a sense of how it is today but, perhaps more importantly, in what ways is it changing and how quickly. It is also worth considering how sensitive a new place could be to sudden changes, such as with pandemics and climate change. This research is well worth doing.

We’ve learned a lot from the pandemic. It’s been a reminder of the importance of place. But it’s also a reminder of how our places can change for the worse, and quickly. Best to be prepared.

Ryan is an expert speaker in the aging industry. Want to have Ryan speak at your event? Find out more.


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Intergenerational Fatherhood - SmartLiving 360

Intergenerational Fatherhood

I am a few years into the teenage kid stage of fatherhood and I’m working my way up the learning curve. I’m finding that the timeout is not an effective punishment, my jokes aren’t as funny (or funny at all) and my IQ has plummeted. I have changed my approach. I seek out one-on-one time and say ‘yes’ to almost any offer to hang out that comes my way, even if it means risking my life with a driver in training. Doling out punishment has changed, too. I’ve focused on essay writing as a mechanism to prompt self-reflection and deep thinking. It seems to have had some impact. One of my kids, commenting on his frequent essay writing of late, shared in his Father’s Day card to me, “I may not enjoy it, but I know it’s good for me.”

But, whatever my strategy, it’s clear that just me won’t be enough. I need some reinforcements. I need intergenerational fatherhood. And, the thing is, I think elder fathers need it, too.

We’re living in the Age of Longevity where people are expected to live longer than ever before. That’s great in many respects – so long as our health and financial well-being match to a longer life – but it also comes with challenges. Chief among them may be finding continued purpose in life. Purpose, particularly the type that finds meaning in making a difference outside of oneself, has been shown to improve overall wellbeing. This is an opportunity for our elders.

At the same time, it couldn’t be more clear that our youth need help navigating today’s world. And their fathers – people like me – can’t do it alone. We don’t have all the answers and often don’t have enough time. Heck, if our current times are the 1960s part deux, we can’t offer a comparable parallel. My generation read about times of intense racial tensions, but elders lived through them. That brings credibility and perspective.

Erickson on intergenerational fatherhoold - SmartLiving 360
Erik Erickson, a 20th century psychologist, introduced generativity as the 7th step of human development

Collectively, there is an opportunity for generativity, a theory created by Erik Erickson, a legend in the arena of human development. As Marc Freedman describes in his recent call for a Generativity Revolution, Erickson’s theory suggests that we have a drive to contribute what we’ve learned from life to future generations. The well-being of future generations becomes part of the legacy of elder generations.  

A number of organizations, like Generations United and Encore.org, help connect the young and old. They do great work and can point to countless inspirational success stories. But what would it look like if we did a better job of connecting the young and old within our own families? What would it look like to truly father our grandkids?

A mentor of mine once said that your values are not expressed by what you say but how you budget your time, resources and energy. Following this logic, if you want to be an intergenerational father, you need to make sure that your actions back up your intentions.

So, what can you do?

Start with a plan. If you live close to your grandchildren, determine how often you can reasonably connect in person. Understand their age and stage and what activities and conversations are most appropriate. Identify shared interests that help bring you naturally together.

If you don’t live close, it can be more difficult. Find opportunities to connect regularly on the phone or on video. Prioritize travel schedules to visit and be intentional with your time together. Try to forge one-on-one times for greater connection and impact. Make strong memories in your time together.

Intergenerational fatherhood - fathering your grandkids - SmartLiving 360
Effective intergenerational fatherhood may require moving close to grandchildren

If intergenerational fathering becomes a high priority a question emerges: does my current home allow for me to engage with my grandchildren in the way that I would like? For some, this may require a relocation to be closer to grandkids or creating more of a seasonal schedule, if life permits, to visit for longer periods of time. I was fortunate that my mom’s parents spent a month of the summer with us and it allowed me to have significant time with my grandfather. In fact, Eric Erickson and his wife moved in their 80s across the country to be a part of their grandchildren’s lives. Place can make a big difference in nurturing these relationships.

Be prepared to be more tech savvy, too. A smartphone is a pre-requisite and texting may not be enough. Instagram. HouseParty. TikTok. You may have to download them all.

When looking to do intergenerational fathering, it’s important to get buy-in from the father, too. Odds are he will welcome the involvement with open arms. I’ve given my two fathers the green light. Each has embraced it. One has started an unofficial reading club for the summer. He and one of his grandsons alternate choosing books and then discuss and compare notes over Zoom and email. I think they also use these sessions to concoct practical joke ideas, often at my expense. My father-in-law has made special efforts to see his grandkids and adventure seek with them, imparting lessons of life along the way. Be careful – greater engagement can come with greater risks. A three-hour horseback ride at the age 76 was never part of his master plan but he toughed it out to get more time with his grandkids.

For some families, what I’m envisioning is nothing new. It’s a way of life, particularly for extended families that live together. As our society has become more affluent and assumes a greater reliance on the individual, this type of intergenerational fathering has become less common. It’s probably made us all more lonely, too.

Are you ready for fatherhood part two? The teenage parenting years really aren’t that bad. Especially if you’re the grandfather this time around.

Ryan is an expert speaker in the aging industry. Want to have Ryan speak at your event? Find out more.


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Commitment to Place - SmartLiving 360 Blog

Commitment to Place

More and more, we are realizing that place matters. Zip code can predict life expectancy – gaps of as much as 30 years exist for zip codes within Chicago, for example. And, of course, the pandemic has put a spotlight on the impact of place. On a per capita basis, states like Oregon, Texas and Vermont have been relatively unscathed while New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have been ten times more lethal. We may not know the exact reasons, but it’s clear that place matters.

By place, I mean the elements of country, region, metropolitan area, urban, suburban or rural environment, neighborhood and, of course, physical dwelling. All considered, these variables can create an almost endless list of possibilities, particularly for those with financial resources. To find the exact perfect place, you would need a quantum computer to create all of the possible scenarios.

But what if you intentionally limit your options? What if you made a commitment to stay in one place?

Some people are suggesting to do just this. In his commencement speech to the Purdue University Class of 2020, President Mitch Daniels makes a case for rooting yourself in a place. His argument is based on the value of social connection. He admits that he has prioritized work over relationships and, looking back, he’s worse for it. He fears that young people today, raised entirely in the iPhone era, “won’t make friends at all.”

Daniels points out that one of the main ways to immunize against loneliness is geographic rootedness. People who live in the same community for extended periods are far less likely to be lonely. Proximity facilities repeated interactions and time together is a key determinant in developing friendships. Researchers indicate that it takes about 50 hours to move from an acquaintance to a casual friendship, about 100 hours to call someone a friend, and over 200 hours of togetherness to become best friends.

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels delivering his 2020 commencement speech on the importance of place

For those who have not chosen place yet or are open to change, one option is to live close to your friends. C.S. Lewis was explicit in this strategy when he wrote, “Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods … the chief happiness of life. If I had to give a piece of advice to a young person about where to live, I (would) say sacrifice almost everything to live near your friends.” Even now in the area of ubiquitous zoom and houseparty video calls, I suspect that C.S. Lewis would offer similar guidance.

Shortly before the coronavirus outbreak, I had lunch with an acquaintance visiting from Indiana. The conversation led to why his family chose to move to a suburb of Indianapolis, particularly given that he is not from the area and his job didn’t require him to be there. For him and his wife, it was simple: friends. They coordinated with four of their closest friends located in various parts of the country to move into one neighborhood and onto one street. They are raising their families together. It comes with trade-offs – most are not close to family, some could afford nicer homes in “better” locations, and more lucrative jobs could be found elsewhere – but, in their view, the day-to-day lived experience is incomparable being enmeshed in life amongst their dearest of friends.

People who commit to place and invest in relationships locally to the betterment of their area are called weavers, according to David Brooks. Weavers view their community as home and look to make it as welcoming as possible. They have a genuine concern for the trajectory of their place and prioritize neighbors, broadly defined. They may not do it for the relationships, but odds are these relationships take on great meaning in their lives and provide a level of social support, almost akin to family. It’s important to note that you can’t be a weaver if you move every couple of years to find the next best place.

However, decisions related to place can get more challenging as we age. Within the last twenty years, the percentage of retirement-age citizens living within 10 miles of their children, in the same neighborhood with any relative, or having a good friend living nearby, dropped by double digits. This reality has left many of us or our loved ones with tough choices: should one stay in place or move closer to family and friends? The best option may to remain in one’s existing neighborhood but get more rooted.

Minneapolis is an Age-Friendly City that is also Making Sweeping Changes to its Zoning Laws to Enable More Housing
Minneapolis is an age-friendly city that is also making sweeping changes to its zoning laws to enable more housing

Trends are making it easier to stay in existing communities. Changes in zoning laws, such as allowing for accessible dwelling units (ADUs), are making it easier to downsize to another home in your existing area. Technology advances and health services are making it easier for services to be delivered to you. The World Health Organization and AARP are helping municipalities become more age-friendly, with about 500 communities signed up as part of the program. Collective impact initiatives, including a recent effort by Praxis in starting place-based guilds, are helping communities band together to raise the quality of life of their residents.

For author, poet and environmentalist Wendell Berry, committing to place has come naturally. His place is an agrarian small county in Kentucky. He writes:

“And so I came to belong to this place. Being here satisfies me. I had laid my claim on the place and had made it answerable to my life. Of course you can’t do that and get away free. You can’t choose it seems without being chosen. For the place in return had laid its claim on me and had made my life answerable to it.”

Perhaps now is the time to evaluate your commitment to your current place. If you’re in a reasonable spot, maybe it’s worth doubling down in a more significant and long-term way. If you’re not in such a place, perhaps it’s worth finding an attractive spot and creating roots as you age. Odds are that your future self will thank you.

Ryan is an expert speaker in the aging industry. Want to have Ryan speak at your event? Find out more.


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Where You Live Matters - SmartLiving 360 blog

Where You Live Matters

Home is multi-pronged. Sometimes, we view it too narrowly, as simply our physical dwelling. Our single-family house, apartment, condo and so on. But the reality is that the country you live in, your metropolitan area, your neighborhood and your physical dwelling all combine to form your place.

The coronavirus crisis is a strong reminder that the place we call home matters. (See Power of Place.) For some, all considered, place has fortified their health and provided reassurances. For others, place has magnified fears and increased health risks. It’s no exaggeration to say that place can be the difference between life and death.

Warren Buffett once said: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

For our institutions and as individuals, the coronavirus has exposed us. For many of us, we hadn’t thought through how our place would be impacted by a pandemic. Unfortunately, neither did enough of our public officials.

My friend, Jeff, and his family live in Seattle. They love it. A number of years ago his brother moved to be near him and, a few years later, his widowed mom left North Carolina to join them. She moved to a well-appointed, high-rise senior living residence downtown. Everyone was pleased with the situation. They had separate spaces and social circles, but also had the ability to regularly get together in person.

When Seattle became the first coronavirus hotspot, Jeff and his family had to act fast. Concerned that his mom would not fare well in a small apartment during a period of quarantine, they swooped in and made accommodations for her to live with Jeff’s brother. It’s been a couple of months now and the new living situation has been better than imagined. Their choice to change places was a good one.

Where you live matters, Los Angeles has been safer than New York City
Place Matters: Living in Los Angeles during the coronavirus has been spectacularly safer than New York City

On the other side of the country, my aunt and uncle in their early 80s live in a retirement community outside of Pittsburgh. (See Cool Uncle Russ, The Millennials and the Deli Shop.) They are so grateful to be there during this time. Several years ago, they moved from a remote, single-family house in Wyoming. Their home had a spectacular view of the neighboring mountains but a grocery store of any size was an hour away, as was medical care. Now, they live in a cottage, have healthy food reliably delivered to them and care, if they need it, is close by. They moved seeking peace of mind which they have found in their community.

We live in a neighborhood in Austin with ample space for walking, running and biking. We’ve been sheltering-in-place for 28 days (who’s counting!?!) and have survived okay thus far. However, on the surface, our neighborhood is not ideal for older adults. A number of older adults live alone and are understandably concerned about venturing out for anything. Social isolation is a concern, but so is procuring the basic provisions for living.

Living alone during a crisis is difficult, but is made better with helping hands
Living alone during the crisis is difficult, especially for older adults, but is made better with helping hands

This is where the neighborhood, another component of place, has stepped in. An engaged member of the neighborhood, Roseann, is working with the local police department to coordinate with older neighbors who live alone or could use help. The list is about twenty households. Roseann has created a network through Nextdoor of nearly the same number of people in the neighborhood willing to help. We’ve pitched in to buy a trash can for an older neighbor, and made and delivered a dinner for a widow. We’re not unusual; this is a cultural norm for the neighborhood.

Our neighborhood has what sociologists call social capital. Neighbors generally seek to know and help each other. (See What Does It Mean to be a Neighbor?) The social networks may not show up in economic figures but they matter. Living alone is tough, but it’s certainly worse in places where social capital is low.

The reality is that place has always mattered. It’s just getting a lot more attention now. As we get through this crisis, if you’re in a great living situation, you should feel grateful. Use it as an opportunity to help those who may not be as fortunate. If you’re not in a great situation, please reach out to others. Perhaps a family member could sweep in, like Jeff did for his mom, or others can come alongside to help provide physical distancing with social connection, or needed provisions, like meals.

There’s not any one right answer for place, but some are better than others. It comes down to individual preference as well as age and stage. Regardless, it’s hard to see the downside of having good neighbors willing to chip in and help no matter what. It’s also valuable to have options. Planning ahead has benefits. (See What Will You Do with Your 8,000 Days? and Are You Prepared to Live to 100?)

Once this crisis passes, an important question will loom: how will you think differently about place post-covid-19? How should your loved ones think about place? It may be one of the most important questions that we collectively and individually face. It’s not fun getting caught naked in general, but especially during a crisis.

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Physical Distancing with Social Connection, Not Social Distancing

Physical Distancing with Social Connection, Not Social Distancing

One of my closest friends, Mike, lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two young kids. Several months ago, Mike’s mom, a widow, moved a few blocks away, in part to spend more time with her grandkids. “Gramsie” volunteers at their school, ventures with them on city excursions and regularly shares family meals. However, with the coronavirus, these activities have been suspended. Indefinitely. She and they are practicing social distancing. But all still crave connection. So they’re improvising. Over the last few days, she has been reading books to her grandkids over FaceTime. If this crisis continues, she may even need to channel her old school teacher ways and provide some home schooling via video conference from her apartment. I know Mike, like many parents in his spot, juggling kids at home and attempting to work from home, would appreciate the relief. Gramsie will no doubt relish the social company of her grandchildren.

Social distancing – the practice of maintaining a distance between people, typically at least six feet, and minimizing in-person social encounters — may be a key in “flattening the curve” of COVID-19. In the absence of a vaccine, containment coupled with widespread testing are our best bets to minimize the impact of the pandemic.

However, we can do better than social distancing. We need physical distancing. And with it, a very large dose of social connection at the same time. Some are calling this remote connecting.

Take older adults, for example. There are currently about 45 million people 65 years or older, and about a quarter live alone. Studies show that more than 40% feel lonely at least some of the time. Both social isolation and loneliness are linked to a myriad of health risks ranging from depression to heart disease to strokes and more. These are the facts prior to the pandemic. Social distancing will likely make this worse, particularly given that older adults face the dual threat of isolation coupled with the anxiety of a disease that hits their demographic the hardest.

But the risk of social distancing holds true for all of us. Particularly as more measures of disease containment increase to a complete lockdown, or sheltering in place, we will all struggle with the ability to connect with others on a regular basis. It might be hardest for Millennials who are cited as the loneliest group according to a recent Cigna study, or it could be for Gen Xers like Mike, who are squeezed managing their young families at home while attempting to be productive working from home.

Collectively, we’re all going to have to do something about it. We’re going to have to change our behaviors even more than we may initially realize. We need to practice physical distancing with a heavy dose of connection. Fortunately, even though it’s just been a few days of this new reality, we’re already seeing some good examples.

Kids playing their instruments to a self-quarantined older adult neighbor (Source: YouTube)

How about the kids in Ohio who sought out an older neighbor and played their instruments at a safe distance to bring her joy? Or Italians spontaneously singing from their balconies?

My friend, Joy Zhang, is the co-founder of Mon Ami, a venture-backed start-up marketplace that links college students with older adults for social visits. They are tackling the risks of social isolation and loneliness through intergenerational connections. During this current time, they have turned virtual. They have developed a volunteer phone bank to connect isolated older adults with those who wish to call on them.

Alex Smith, a current Encore Public Voices Fellow (Joy and I were part of the initial cohort last year), is getting creative with his efforts to combat loneliness in the UK. His organization, The Cares Family, is tackling loneliness at the present with a combination of technology, such as Zoom and Skype calls, with physical postcards and poems sent by younger people to older adults.

In Canada, the term #caremongering has been trending. What started as a way to help vulnerable people in Toronto has spread throughout the country with more than 35 Facebook groups set up in less than three days encompassing tens of thousands of people. The purpose is to link people who can help with those who need it.

We’ve seen the same thing in our neighborhood in Austin. Nextdoor has been the primary social media vehicle. People are virtually reaching out to neighbors – in some cases for the first time – to see how they can be helpful doing necessary errands. It’s a tech savvy area so it’s not uncommon for people in their 80s to be connected and active. Given that it’s an area that likes to bar-b-que, one of the neighbors has volunteered to cook and deliver BBQ food.

A neighbor offering his BBQ skills for the neighborhood (Nextdoor)

These stories, and plenty of others that we don’t know about, are uplifting at such a critical time. And what’s so important is, while we’re most concerned about our individual and family’s health, these are examples of people reaching out to people outside of their immediate network. This is what contributes to the healthy social fabric of our communities.

But it doesn’t have to stop there. With the ease of today’s technology, we can reach out and virtually connect with people beyond our neighborhood and networks. Maybe it is a time to engage in sites like Mon Ami and make sure people are covered both near and far.

We also need to recognize that some means of communication are more enriching than others. According to former Surgeon General and author of Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Vivek Murty, “Video conferences and phone calls are more rich than texting or emailing alone.” Let’s err on the side of using the video conferencing apps even if we’re having a bad hair day.

Social distancing is markedly better than no social distancing. But we’re far better employing physical distancing with a heavy dose of social connection. Pick up your phone, use your video chatting app or your instrument, and do your part. We’ll all be better for it now and on the other side of this crisis.

Unfortunately, we’re likely in for a long, bumpy ride, but let’s make it an opportunity to bring us all together for the better. Who knows, maybe a person you reach out to would love to virtually read to your kids or, better yet, might be able and willing to remotely home school your kids. Maybe this an opportunity for you and your family to gain a virtual Gramsie.

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Finding Your Kin - the importance of friendships as we age

Finding Your Kin: The Importance of Friendship as You Age

Approaching eighteen years ago, my wife and I were married over the July 4th holiday weekend in Southern California. Many made a vacation of it and we were fortunate to be surrounded by a large number of family and friends. Our parents’ “chosen family” – their collection of close friends – was also well-represented. I took note.

Both sets of our parents shared a similar life’s journey, moving from the Rust Belt – a mix of Pennsylvania and upper state New York – to California, with stops along the way. With each life chapter they picked up friends. From childhood, college, the military, work, neighbors, kids’ school, volunteering, church and more. Some of these friendships became as deep as blood lines. They became chosen family. The people you would choose as family if you could. Chosen family was necessary because their extended family – parents, siblings, aunts and uncles – were thousands of miles away.

In the cover article of the March issue of The Atlantic, The Nuclear Family was a Mistake, the author, David Brooks, outlines a narrative of family formation from the early days of our country to the present. In short, when our society was agrarian, our families were large – 8 or 9 kids was not uncommon – and extended family lived close by. Kids and family were necessary for the economic engine of farming. With industrialization, young people pursued economic opportunity and left for the city and burgeoning suburbs. They formed their own nuclear families, often far from extended family. Until 1850, roughly three-quarters of Americans lived with their kids and grandkids. By 1960, the ratio flipped, with 77.5% of all children living with two parents who were married, and apart from their extended family. Our parents fit into Brooks’s description.

Finding your kin - A nuclear family is great, but where’s the extended family?
A nuclear family is great, but where’s the extended family?

Along the course, Brooks argues, we traded family stability and loyalty for convenience, privacy and mobility, with important benefits but also often overlooked costs.

In short, the good news about our modern culture: you are on your own. You are free to choose your path in life. Manifest destiny. Carpe diem.

Conversely, the bad news about our modern culture: you are on your own. Life will surely knock you down and you may not have someone alongside to pick you up. It should come as no surprise that loneliness and depression are rising.

What’s one to do, particularly in a life that may span a century and be full of the inevitable ups and downs?

We need to find our people. Our kin. Our chosen family.

Friendships take chemistry and they take time. Researchers suggest that it takes about 50 hours to move from an acquaintance to a friend and as many as 200 hours to consider somebody a best friend. Chosen family are more akin to best friends. You should feel comfortable to reach out to them at any time and they should be responsive.

Many of us need chosen family throughout life, but some chapters are more critical than others. Some of us are caught in the sandwich generation: caring for kids and parents simultaneously. This can be extraordinarily stressful and often the burden falls on the adult daughter. My good friend, Anne Tumlinson, started and runs Daughterhood.org, which provides content and support for women supporting their parents. Daughterhood.org organizes circle groups that allow women with common challenges to come together in person and support each other. For some, this can be the beginning of finding chosen family at a key time.

Older adults often need chosen family, too. We are new to Austin but our neighbor in her early 80s, Colleen, has sought us out. She has asked my wife to stop in to help out around the house and to run some errands for her. I’ve provided some training on Google Sheets at her request. Maybe that’s just what a good neighbor does. Or maybe it’s the beginning of adding chosen family.

Finding your kin - Chosen family is particularly powerful when it spans generations
Chosen family is particularly powerful when it spans generations

In other situations, we need to be aware of people who need chosen family, and take action. Paige, part of our chosen family from our years in San Francisco, now lives in Richmond, Virginia. She and her young daughters have made a friendship with an older widow on their street, Miss Polly. Paige could tell that Miss Polly was lonely and so she started visiting with no set agenda. Just to say hi. These visits became more regular – at least weekly – and a special, intergenerational bond has formed.

Place matters. Chosen family – at least some of it – must be close enough so you can spend time together and be there for life’s various twists and turns. Finding your kin can happen virtually anywhere, but some places are easier than others. If you don’t have your kin and you’ve been trying for some time, maybe it’s time to change places. Maybe you are just not in the right place for you now.

I should mention that chosen family ought not to replace family but to augment it. While our family lives across the country and beyond, we’re still able to get our extended family together most years. A couple of years ago, we started a text thread that includes about a dozen family members across three generations. People share funny stories, memorable pictures and prayer requests. It’s a way to keep in touch even though we’re not physically close.

With two teenagers and an aspiring teenager, our immediate family is not planning any weddings in the near future. However, when the time comes, I’ll be eager to celebrate with our family, our chosen family and chosen family that we have yet to meet. There will be much to be grateful for.

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Are You Too Efficient?

Are You Too Efficient?

I stayed with some good friends recently and the strangest thing happened. My friend, Ted, picked me up at the airport. And then he dropped me off at the airport at the end of the weekend. Surely he’s heard of Uber, right?

Ted is a busy guy. He’s got a full house of kids, pets and a wife. He’s got a job with a lot of responsibility. He’s got an old house that has an endless list of projects to demand his attention. What’s he doing taking 90 minutes out of his day on two occasions on one weekend? Why not Lyft? And why did it feel so counter-cultural?

We live in an amazing time. If you want it and can afford it then it’s yours. Now. Instantaneously. We’re in the midst of our whole life becoming Amazon Primed. Transport: Uber & Lyft. Food: DoorDash, GrubHub. Entertainment: Netflix, Hulu and now Apple. Projects at home: TaskRabbit, Takl. Healthcare on demand is just around the corner.

We can even pay people to be our friends. Yes, there’s such a service: www.rentafriend.com.

What’s not to like?

An efficiency tool from the ‘90s: The Sharp YO-600

If efficiency is a god, then I am a worshipper – front pew. When I was in college in the ‘90s, PDA meant public display of affection. But not for me, I was an electrical engineer. I was one of the first adopters of the real PDAs: personal digital assistants. I purchased a Sharp PDA with a keyboard to keep all of my contacts. There was no way to get data off of it, it was slow and battery life was miserable. But, in my mind, it made me more efficient so I picked it up and became a power user.

Of course, the ‘90s was mere child’s play compared to today. My old phone died recently and I upgraded to the latest iPhone. It’s got it all. Email. Video. Movies. Sports. Kindle. Camera. Strava. Endless battery life. All on a 5G network. I can maximize every minute of my day in line with my highest priorities; it’s Heaven for those that praise efficiency.

But not all cultures elevate efficiency to deity status. Take Africa for example. A friend who has traveled there frequently sums it up well: Americans have watches, Africans have time. Hmm.

Ted lived for a stretch in Africa well before today’s heyday of efficiency in the States. He said that in his experience much of the economy was based on doing things for others. Someone would do a favor for another. No money would be exchanged, but a tacit agreement was formed. One would be indebted to the other until a return favor was provided. Then the tables were turned. This could back and forth for years and span generations. I’m sure it could get messy when accounting is subject to interpretation and memories fade, but it links services rendered to relationships with others.

When life becomes pure transactions – pure digital transactions – we lose the opportunity for a transaction to become a relationship. It doesn’t have to necessarily be a deep relationship – there’s plenty of evidence of the value of weak tie connections. However, some weak ties grow to strong ties with more time spent and the right bit of chemistry. These deep connections are priceless.

People and relationships are messy but the alternative is worse. At this point, everyone is talking and writing about the damaging impact of social isolation and loneliness. The former US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, was one of the first to declare our country facing a loneliness epidemic in 2017. His book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, comes out in the spring. My bet is these conversations have only begun. None of us are equipped to thrive in this gilded age of efficiency.

Example of neighbors helping neighbors to improve a home – an alternative to TaskRabbit (source: Argus Observer)

So what should we do?

We should err on the side of becoming intentionally inefficient. As a friend and mentor of mine once summed up his life’s advice: ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.

A strange thing happens when we become intentionally inefficient: we get to experience life. We’re not double booked and running from one event to another. We’re able to be present and connect with those around us. We’re able to see the person, not just the transaction.

We have an opportunity to take advantage of place. Have a front porch? Use it. A kitchen to host people? Use it. Have a basketball hoop that goes underused? Invite some kids in the neighborhood to use it. Need some help around the house? Eschew the latest app and reach out to a neighbor. As my mom told me growing up, the best way to make a friend is to ask for help.

Turn the TV off, put the phone down and get involved in your community. More groups are making it easier to connect with people of all ages to help each other. For example, Encore.org just launched a Gen2Gen Cities report to help share best practices for creating intergenerational connectivity. This is productive intentional inefficiency.

And, when you have a need that could be serviced by an app, pause for just a moment and consider if it’s too efficient, or if there’s another way. Because, in the end, our on demand world has huge advantages but not if we rely on it exclusively.

And, let me know if you visit Austin and need a ride. I’ll do my best to pick you up.

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