LIFE STORIES

What age defines 'senior' status?
Turning fifty often marks the beginning of middle age. A personalized AARP membership card arrives in time for the momentous occasion, enticing recipients with senior perks eligibility upon activation. While 50 may seem early to think about aging, people are living longer, that is precisely the right time to consider retirement logistics.

Senior Speak | Life Stories looks at nine seniors and asks the question - how is life at 70's, 80's and 100 years of age? What choices are retirees making on housing, health and lifestyles and how to spend newly found time they may not have had while working or raising families? 

The most prominent desire for Americans nearing retirement age and older is the ability to age in place: to remain in their current homes. The criteria for independent living depends greatly on general good health, affordable housing and transportation. The number of people ages 65 and older in the United States is an ever increasing number according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Between 2000 and 2010, the demographic population 65 years and over, increased at a faster rate of (15.1 %) than that of the total U.S. population (9.7 %). This population of 40.3 million people (65 and older) accounted for 13 percent of the total population.

As these numbers rise so too will caring for the elderly. Both families and communities alike will need to address the needs of our senior citizens, and how best to provide care where care is needed. Many people are choosing to work longer for many reasons of which these two are most prominent: The economics of earning a paycheck vs. the ability to live on a fixed income will vary according to the age a person retires. The average life expectancy has risen overall,  and with improved health of older people,  many work longer for increased earnings.

Newly retired - what now?
Once retired status is in effect, people should have living arrangements that account for services they'll need as they grow older. Aging in place means more than just being able to get around the house. It means the elderly can walk on a sidewalk if they're able to in communities with adequate pedestrian passages that allow for access with walkers, wheelchairs and strollers. Shopping for food, being able to get to a doctor's office, having grab bars installed in the bathroom and around the home for easy navigation - these are typical considerations the elderly may face as they live in their own at home with considerations given to the community where they reside. Does the community have services such as dial-a-ride for seniors, regular meal delivery and a check-in provider for those who don't leave the house? Whether a owner or renter, can the elderly meet housing costs including heat and electricity, on their own? These questions represent living standards and services that the elderly will at some point come to rely upon. Additionally, the challenge of how to spend free time can present retired people with a feeling of 'what do I do now?' 

Newly retired people may decide to use their time to volunteer with organizations or causes they care about. That experience not only provides filling much needed assistance, but gives a sense of purpose and social networking. 

Lastly, are their wishes set out in writing, such as a living will and advanced health directives? These formalities provide more than peace of mind. Legal documents represent options that have been examined and more importantly, choices outlined are those that best represent the wishes of the individual. 

In their own words
The typical retirement age in the U.S. has gradually increased over the past seventeen years from 60 in 1995 to 64 in 2005. Americans now expect to retire at 67 up from 66 in 2011. According to the Social Security Administration, individuals who retire earlier than 67 would receive a reduced benefit amount than if they stay employed to their full retirement age. 

Seniors have much to consider when it comes to long term planning. Will a house that accommodated a growing family be feasible for a widow or widower? Will stairs in a 2 or 3 level home or a sizable property present too much maintenance or financial hardship to an aging couple or individual? What about the hours and the days . . . how will having your own schedule, not that of an employers, be managed? The individuals you are about to meet share similarities - they're all seniors by definition, at age 60 plus. That's where the similarities end. Each participant will speak about their own unique situation - in their own words

Life stories
The participants of Senior Speak Life Stories share their present day circumstances and their life stories in Voices videos contained on the site. See which strategies are working for them as they endeavor on their aging journey:

  • E. Richard Fortunato - known by friends and family as Dick, was a retired marketing professional and later worked as a freelance writer              and community advocate in Southington,  CT. Dick served on many town committees and lived with wife Grace in their own home. Dick            passed away December 16, 2017.

  • Carol Ann Brown - retired teacher and newsroom librarian is town historian and author of 'Bethlehem'. Carol also serves on her town's                school board and is president of the Bethlehem Historical Society.

  • Bella Nadea - mother and retired homemaker, lives in The Orchards at Southington, an independent apartment living community.

  • Judy Alt - homemaker, belly dancer and yoga instructor and owner of Compassionate Hands studio. Leads dance troupe in 
      volunteer dance performances at local nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

  • Marjorie Wilson - retired hair stylist who continues to bring beauty into the lives of others through presentations and offering her
      styling services to the elderly and battered women.

  • Vivian Russo - retired school system food services employee who lives independently in her own home.

  • Marie Waage - retired seamstress and babysitter, lived with her adult son in her own home. Marie passed away in March, 2019.

  • Pat Olsen - retired publishing employee began part time work as a home aide assistant. Pat lives independently in her own home.

  • Edythe Tomon -  retired maid, lived with her adult son in her own home.  Edythe later moved into a hospice facility and passed away soon
      after.

Unique living styles
There are as many different retirement pictures as there are people. Living arrangements vary according to what each individual will require: assisted living and independent living facilities, continuing care retirement communities, senior housing, nursing and specialized homes, or residing in their own homes with home health care services, are viable options. As people age and health conditions present themselves, some may experience a combination of lifestyles - such is the nature of change and time.  

"A health care patient can become a resident in a long term care facility when they no longer are able to care for themselves and require 24 hour care. Doctors at hospitals consult with families and come to the discussion which is best for the patient. People either can't care for themselves at their home or they do not have the funds for 24 hour home care or family members are unable to care for them in a home setting. Some residents at long term care facilities that progress in treatment are able to go to assisted living facilities. Assisted living facilities only accept private pay, therefore long term care facilities house residents that are able to live on their own with some care but don't have the private funds to do so wind up living here," said Susan Brooks, Recreational Facilitator at Genesis Health Care at Skyview Center in Wallingford, CT. 

The most common reason people choose to live in an assisted living or independent living facility is a combination of needing some level of care. "People may have trouble taking care of themselves or they're tired of cutting grass, shoveling snow or cooking their meals," according to Pamela J. Smith Gerontologist and Resident Service Coordinator of The Orchards of Southington. "Often it's their decision or sometimes the family brings it up." Immediate family might live far away from parents, or a spouse may have passed away and the children feel the single parent might not be able to manage on their own. "Families will research assisted living facilities together, and in general the main reason for people choosing assisted living is because they can't take care of themselves 100% and they're either ready for assisted living and their families are ready for it," said Smith. 

Assisted living is synonymous with renting an apartment with services factored into the price. Potential residents will often research several facilities and compare services of each and then compare costs of assisted living vs. what it costs to remain in the home, taking into account what they'd pay for lawn and snow services, mortgage if any, transportation, food, etc. The Orchards offers both assisted living and independent living options on a month-to-month lease, with a 30 day notice requirement (if moving to a higher level of care) and 60 day notice requirement (if moving out entirely). Some assisted living facilities might offer options such as an annual lease or purchasing the apartment - each facility differs. It's important to know what services each facility offers and how as needs may arise, costs associated with additional services would change. 

"We often will work with residents as their needs change," said Smith. "Because people are living longer residents sometimes face financial planning concerns. They don't want to move out but their needs increase to depend more on assistance with things like walking, or taking medications. We encourage families to talk to us. We'll work with them to find state, federal or veteran programs that can help with additional funds. We'll work with them in whatever is needed for their care." 

Preparation and best practices
One universal truth: the earlier long term planning is done, the better chance everyone has of living the life they'd choose for themselves and be best prepared for any challenges they may face.

This project is dedicated to my Aunt Vivian, who left us too soon after a hard fight with cancer. She lived her life gracefully, with an open and kind heart for her family and those she encountered daily. To be around her was to know love.