Doing fun things with old people

The world is ageing fast. Every day, 10,000 American baby boomers turn 65. Figuring out what to do with them (/us 1) is something we need to think about. Better yet if it can increase well-being across the world.

Photo by Janosch Lino on Unsplash

A recent Economist article described how some university campuses in the United States are building retirement homes. I hope they will forgive me quoting large parts of their article.

Most residents are having a ball. They get a university pass, which allows them to attend the same classes and cultural events as students, but with the distinct benefit of not having to take exams. Golf buggies can drive them around the sprawling campus, though many are still fit enough to mountain bike.

In their dorms, four restaurants serve better food than college grub and amenities include an art studio, a pool and gym, and a games room. Only the second floor feels institutional, with a memory-care centre and rooms for residents who need round-the-clock attention

This is part of a wider trend. An estimated 85 colleges in America are affiliated with some form of senior living. The idea sprang from two college presidents who wanted to retire on campus in the 1980s. Today, universities from Central Florida to Iowa State to Stanford offer senior-living arrangements. Andrew Carle, at Georgetown University, estimates that as many as 20,000 older Americans live like this

Bill Gates—not that one, but an 80-year-old former newspaper editor—moved to [one of these communities] with his wife, who has a PhD in chemistry, two years ago. They have made friends with residents but also, to their surprise, with younger students. “Being among young people is really invigorating,” says Mr Gates. At “pizza and a slice of future”, a discussion group about AI with pizza served halfway through, one of the topics was whether a lifespan of 200 or 250 years would be desirable. “The 20-year-olds were enthusiastic,” he reflects, but those in their 70s and 80s “had some reservations”, he chuckles.

When I saw this, I thought it was a downpayment on heaven. Being in community, attending lectures and discussion groups, surrounded by young people … oh man … what a fantastic way to spend your life’s teatime.

I heard another example from the UK. Our church used to run a day centre for the elderly. I heard of a similar day centre that had combined with a toddler group. So instead of the elderly looking at each across a circle of high-backed chairs, the elderly were looking at each other across a circle of high-backed chairs over a space filled with toddlers doing toddlery things. I can’t imagine how this wouldn’t be fun, perhaps even for all concerned.

Old people are changing. But the picture I have had of them so far in the UK is people on the edge of things, and unbelievably lonely, and deprived of the things that really matter, namely purpose and people. How astonishing and lovely it could be if they were folded back into new forms of extended families and communities; such healing, such wholeness.

  1. Nearly, but not quite

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