A few years ago, I didn’t give it a thought. Becoming a senior seemed very far away. And if it ever did happen, I always joked, I had every intention of making my seven children take care of me in my advanced years.
But I realize, more strongly the older I become, that I don’t want to be under the care and control of my children and their partners. I want to be with friends my own age, people who actually remember Doris Day and Rock Hudson.
Another realization hit when my mother went into long-term care. She remarried at 80 and had six glorious years with her new partner—then she had a stroke. She needed physical care. The choice was between a private facility where both could live, for $6,000 a month, and subsidized care, where she would be separated from the love of her life. They didn’t have $6,000 a month, so he lived in one place and she lived in another. While we’re told that we live in a society that supports families, we divide them in the way we set up long-term care.
Not only were they separated, but my mother was locked in the building. Many of the home’s residents were living with dementia, so none were permitted to leave unless they were accompanied by an adult—which, it was assumed, they weren’t. This is what is available in the real world, I realized. And if heterosexual couples are having trouble staying together, I wondered what it would be like for women in lesbian relationships. So, about three years ago, a group of us got together to discuss making things different. Our group is diverse: Native women, immigrant women, women with family members with disabilities, lesbians, and heterosexual women. We call ourselves the Committee for Retirement Alternatives for Women.
Let’s face it: Women over 60 are predominantly low-income. Most cannot afford private options. Our committee set out to define new values congruent with women’s lives and to redesign how we view retirement homes and long-term care facilities. Our goal is to build a retirement village for women—a prototype that could be used elsewhere.
As senior housing currently exists, many retirement complexes and long-term care facilities are in isolated locations, far from the communities where people have connections. In the last years of life, you get moved as soon as you lose bladder control or can’t feed yourself. Additionally, particularly in long-term care, residents have little control over their environment. Imagine: You’re 86 and have been independent all your life, but you can’t sleep in till noon and stay up till midnight playing cards with friends. You might even have to sneak that glass of wine into your room.
With these concerns in mind, our committee decided to explore alternatives for affordable housing sensitive to an active, diverse female community. We agreed that the housing would be built on the principles of respect, diversity, and community. We see ourselves helping one another, creating a community where we care for and about one another to the best of our abilities, where we don’t ship off some women because they need greater care.
One of our members built a facility model that envisions two floors surrounding a courtyard. There’s an interior walkway around the second floor, where women can sit outside their rooms, chat with people who walk by, or watch tai chi classes below. If women are unable to participate in activities, at least they can be part of them as observers. The plans also include a café and a common kitchen. Part of the facility will be for women who need intensive care, but they’ll still be part of the community.
And we won’t be isolated on the outskirts of nowhere, but an integral part of a larger community. Our design includes a community center, with a pool for the public as well as residents, and rooms for teaching everything from knitting to economic theory.
We don’t want just to be taken care of; we want to participate. We have wisdom and talent to share. We are boomers who moved from watching TV shows like Father Knows Best to reading Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer. We fought to change the society we were living in because we believed in having more control over our lives as women. And we’re not about to give up what we’ve worked so hard to have.
Our dream is to encourage respect for the past and what we can learn from it, to live fully in the present, and, at the same time, to make a better future for our children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews.
So far, making the dream come true has been a challenge. We’ve been turned down for three grants, but we’ll keep trying. In the meantime, I keep talking to people to encourage them to view housing for seniors differently, because I know what I want and don’t want for myself, my children, and my grandchildren.
I don’t want to make Styrofoam snowmen and snowwomen to keep busy. I don’t want to be warehoused in quad rooms down long hallways where there’s no interaction with other residents or the community at large. And I don’t want to be loaded with sedatives and sleeping pills to keep me quiet.
I want to shout loudly, be brave, be cantankerous when I need to be, and love whenever I can, and to continue, as I always have, to live life to the fullest.
Excerpted from Herizons (Summer 2009), a Canadian feminist quarterly that covers the women’s movement with wit and integrity.