As a seminarian interested in pursuing chaplaincy I did some field education work during 2011-13 at a nearby skilled nursing facility, primarily serving residents who qualify for medicaid. Because I had also personally experienced institutional settings with aged family members, I was not surprised by what I saw, but it was still unnerving. People stuck in their beds and wheelchairs with little-to-no interaction with others. Instead, TVs (one or two at a time) ran in every room as a welcome distraction from the boredom, isolation, pain and grief. Some speak a language that maybe one but often none of the staff can speak. There’s a hard core group of the most fit and cognitive who show up for activities, but the larger percentage are not engaged – there’s not enough staff to make that happen. It doesn’t feel like a “home”, it feels like a train station, there’s constant motion and this deep underlying hum of waiting for the dreaded/welcomed train that is a one-way ride out of Dodge.
From the conversations I’ve heard, we have come a long way from even a generation ago as far as how we care for our elders and infirm. There is a lot of good innovation going on, usually with not enough staff or resources to make it happen. There are lots of senior communities developing everywhere that offer a menu of assisted living options. These well-groomed communities offer privacy as well as care and a smorgasbord of options and comforts. For many people these communities work very well.They also cost a pretty penny and, if you have pulled through our economic upheaval with your savings intact, you are set. But many people in our wealthy democracy are not “all set”. There are people who qualify for medicaid and then there is the growing economic strata of people who don’t qualify for medicaid but can’t fork over the $6,000/month for assisted living.
The greying of America has created an exploding market. Increasingly, nursing homes are bought up in this for-profit industry where profit – and not people – is the ultimate bottom line. I’m interested in a community that is NOT for profit. We need to imagine alternatives. I need to imagine alternatives.
Another passion for me is our connection to the natural world. I think that being literally in touch with nature is a powerful healing force that we need in order to keep ourselves balanced, to heal our bodies and spirits. Humans need to be connected to nature in order to stay healthy and the planet needs us humans to stay connected so that we don’t decimate the ecosystem. If we lose our sensitivity to the earth and the natural rhythms of life, we become numb to it, afraid of it, and we are not aware of how we destroy it. We know global climate change is real, and it is happening right now. We need to make sure our future generations have an instinctual connection to the natural world that ensures a desire to protect our environments.
Children and seniors are a happy combination, bypassing the sandwiched parents who are so busy anyway. Elders getting outside into the sun is a healing thing. Children playing in the trees and fresh air makes for healthy development. These three elements of elders, children, nature make up the three core elements of an intergenerational care community that I am imagining. Since 80% of our US population lives in urban areas, I have been envisioning how we can make this happen in our cities and towns, but the three-elements model could be anywhere, really. I see it as a building or series of buildings (repurposed or built anew) with an equal square footage of green space and garden. I see children interacting with elders, I see everyone getting out into the air and the sun, if not actively hands-in-dirt. I see nursing staff relieved to have their children nearby. I see people fed by purpose and normal life-affirming presence and interaction. I see a hub in the neighborhood. I see life and spirit bubbling and connecting, healing and quieting – a cycle of budding, blooming, decaying, composting and re-sprouting.
I have been interviewing people in these various fields, talking to elders and SNF residents, gathering information and ideas from reading, surfing the web, and taking classes dedicated to these topics. I’ve made a lot of lists. I have been looking things like Montessori education, permaculture, nature-deficit disorder, horticulture therapy, skilled nursing administration structures, gerontology, gerotranscendence, medicare and medicaid, community building models, combined adult & child day programs, Culture Change, Dr. Bill Thomas’ Green Houses and nursery greenhouses; I look for where theologies address nature and creation, community and pastoral care; I’ve been looking at A Pattern Language, usonian architecture, how the suprachaismatic nucleus of dementia patients benefits from sunlight. There’s a lot to learn, discuss and synthesize into a working model. Do any of these things float your boat? One-by-one I will bring these topics up, creating a mosaic of ideas to build upon.
This is a seed idea being planted in cyberspace. It needs cross-pollinating with your ideas and input. This project is constructed as a blog so that we can talk with each other and envision together. Maybe one day it will get built! But for now, we dream.
– Liz Olson
San Francisco, California
And… See my story (link) about a formative experience I had with a resident at a skilled nursing facility, a true gentleman named Mr. Woods. The spirit of that encounter is the spirit behind this project and the blessing of a name for this dream, this site.