Back around the holidays, you may have seen the Christmas commercial put out by the German grocer EDEKA - it's gotten 46 million views to date, and it's a bigger tear-jerker than even the holiday commercials put out by my home-state Publix. If you haven't seen it, grab a tissue, and watch it (it's embedded below). Then I'll tell you why I think it's a dramatic illustration of three major issues we in America have to address together, and soon.
[Waiting while you watch it.]
I recently spoke to a meeting of city and county managers, and I was asked to "be provocative." I showed this ad to illustrate three points (and to see if I could make grizzled public servants cry).
1) The coming caregiving crisis - While we can expect Boomers and subsequent generations to live longer, healthier active lives, for many there will still be a phase of life in which we need help. For the last 50 years or so, that help has usually come in one of two ways - either through family or through institutional care, primarily nursing homes. But the nature of the family is changing for many, and one reason the commercial hits home is that too many of us live the reality it portrays - three adult children, all miles away from their parent(s). Look closer though, and you see that of those three Boomer-age children, all three appear to be married but only one has children of her own. For those other two Boomers (and their spouses), who will come to their Christmas dinner? Who will look after them? If you want to learn more about the coming caregiver crisis, AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving have a study that is a good place to start.
2) The need for livable communities - The best-case solution, I argued, lies in active, engaged, interconnected and intergenerational communities. The problem is, they don't fully exist yet. Go back to the ad and you can see what I mean.
First of all, there are the physical issues. "Opa" can get up those front steps to his house now, but it's just a matter of time until he slips. If he falls and suffers a broken bone, how will he get in and out? And if he can't drive anymore, how will he get around? The commercial doesn't have a lot of exterior shots, but it appears pretty clear that this is a car-only environment that isn't walkable and doesn't have mobility options like buses or rail. If he lived in a place that was more physically age-friendly, it would be easier to get natural exercise by walking to maintain his good health, and getting around without a car would prolong his ability to engage in his community. It would also enable him to remain at home if his health deteriorated to the point at which he needed care. And, incidentally, those features of walkability are ones coveted by Boomers and Millennials now, meaning they are great economic development drivers for communities.
Then there are the social issues, and this is something that city planners can't tackle alone. Holidays in many cultures are key family gatherings, certainly. But if his next-door neighbor is hosting dinner, and Opa is eating alone, that seems to point to a dangerous level of isolation (more in a minute on that). A community that is physically built to get people out of their cars creates an environment for neighbors to get to know each other, and a culture that encourages neighborliness and community has the opportunity to create a different narrative. While blood is thicker than water, there is an opportunity for singles (and everyone else, for that matter) to build a network of friends and neighbors into a community that care for each other.
AARP's work on livable communities provides ideas, policies, and success stories on the wide range of physical and social issues that feed in to livability, and the AARP Livability Index can give you a snapshot (and suggestions) about your neighborhood's livability. Most relevant to the city and county managers I addressed, the AARP/WHO Age Friendly Network of Communities convenes places all over the country and globe that are trying to figure out how to get this right.
3) The plague of loneliness. Researches show that the stress of loneliness and isolation can have the impact on morbidity of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is as deadly as more widely recognized health risks like obesity. In an age of online connectedness, Americans report having fewer close friends. While AARP's Foundation focuses attention on isolation and loneliness among low-income elders, this is an issue that crosses economic lines and one that receives scant attention. Chicago researcher John Cacioppo's book Loneliness is likely the best layperson's guide to the science on the issue.
These three issues are ones that can't be solved by one sector, and they are ones that are eminently local. My hope is that community leaders - not only government but business, non-profit, faith-based and philanthropic as well - will work together to address them, and would recommend joining the AARP Age Friendly Network of Communities as a good first step. If this interests you, reach out to your local network of leaders and encourage them to join.
After you wipe your eyes.