You start this book talking about your elderly mother.
Tell me about her.
My mom and dad bought the home across the alley from her mother’s home [in San Antonio] in 1945. It was a lower-middle-class neighborhood of civil service workers, all Latinos. It had the feeling of a Norman Rockwell painting, only all the faces were brown.
My dad passed away in 2006 at age 89, having had a stroke some years before. But my mom, 87, lives there still. The house is essentially the same as it was, with some adjustments. We put a ramp on the side of the house leading to a deck. We raised the toilet, lowered the sinks, created a walk-in shower. Changed the lighting in the den so my dad could read. Put in window guards, an alarm and outdoor lighting for my mom because the neighborhood is somewhat in decline.
She is a classic case of a person aging in place. She’s a healthy, lanky, tall woman who’s always been physically strong. But in recent years she’s started to slow down. She manages all her own affairs. I don’t think there’s a tractor strong enough to pull her from that house.
Until recently, on three sides, all her neighbors were her age or older. The lady to the left died this year at 97. The lady to the right went to a nursing home and died in her late 80s. And the lady across the street died at 90-plus. All stayed in their homes until very late. Aging in place in that neighborhood means older women living on their own.
What lessons do you take from your mom’s experience?
Seniors fear being unable to communicate, being lonely, feeling insecure. Especially people who all their lives have had other people around them — family, neighbors — and now they go entire days and never see anybody.
Imagine being older, a step slower, a bit more fragile. Add to that being lonely, edging to depression and unsure about how you’re going to get everything done that you used to do. But wanting above all to stay in your own home and keep on being independent. That’s hard.
What kinds of policies do you think are needed?
First, I’d like to see us commit as a nation to creating lifelong homes. Only 4 percent of the 65-plus population goes to a nursing home. Most are at home for a long, long time. We should make this a priority, just as we did with creating more energy-efficient homes. This could involve certifying a package of age-related home improvements — the kinds of things we did for my parents — and coming up with public and private strategies for financial support. Second, we ought to be thinking about how we accessorize communities for an aging population. Think about age-appropriate recreation facilities. Think about how we make transit available, so people who no longer drive can get to the doctor. As we build new communities, we should focus on walkability, making sure that older people can walk to facilities they need, like groceries and pharmacies.