SARASOTA, Fla. (Oct. 15, 2015) – Growing older doesn’t have to mean a slow journey toward assisted living as noted author and journalist Beth Baker sees it.
Increasingly, she says, baby boomers are turning to alternative living arrangements – leaving the suburbs for safe urban areas, buying houses with friends, even turning to artist-like colonies to live out their days with like-minded individuals.
Baker chronicles many such stories in her book “With a Little Help From Our Friends – Creating Community as We Grow Older.” The longtime freelance reporter crisscrossed the country to gather material for the publication, encountering “grassroots alternatives to traditional retirement communities and to living alone” along the way.
Baker, who focuses on aging-related issues, is set to present a free lecture next week at USF Sarasota-Manatee about her book and experiences researching it.
Among the stories explored is that of Lynne, “a 50-something dietician from Port Gibson, Miss.” Worried about ending up alone in a traditional retirement community, Lynne and some close-knit friends talked about pooling their savings to purchase a house where they can look after one another as they age.
Baker uncovers similar such instances as she highlights themes of cooperation, unity and neighbor helping neighbor. Her book aptly provides a description about historical attitudes toward “the elderly” and elaborates on how age is defined by some today – and redefined by others who insist on shattering stereotypes.
A common sense discussion also emerges about those who reach out to engage family, friends and neighbors. Baker says it’s no coincidence that such individuals are more likely to end up happy and healthy compared with those living alone.
“It’s been shown that there are longevity benefits for people who are more engaged with their neighbors and with their community,” she said. “It’s been documented that people can live as much as 10 years longer. That’s a lot.”
Conversely, isolation and loneliness can produce ill effects on the immune system and blood pressure, shortening lives.
“It’s integral to healthy aging to feel connected to friends, family and neighbors and to have a sense of purpose and belonging, and, organically, that happens with people who are connected to other people,” she said.
With 72 million baby boomers heading toward retirement, Baker’s book couldn’t be better timed. In 1900, she writes, 4 percent of Americans were over 65. Now, that figure is 13 percent and will hit 17 percent by 2020. With so many boomers, how they live and retire is likely to fuel discussions for decades among sociologists.
Baker suggests that those who seek alternative living arrangements plan to do so before heading into retirement. Making plans sooner rather than later, when a life change could prove taxing, is essential, she said.
“A woman came up to me at one of my lectures and asked how she could help her mother, who was in her 90s,” said Baker. “Unfortunately, that’s too late to start doing something. You have to start planning early. It’s all about planning.”
Dr. Kathy Black, who leads the Age-Friendly Sarasota initiative, says Baker’s book is important for anyone exploring age-friendly housing options.
“Beth has taken the issue of aging and living arrangements and explored some of the trends throughout the country,” Dr. Black said. “This is about people working together, the powerful importance of social connections and being inter-dependent on each other, and not going it alone. And that’s what Age-Friendly is about.”
Dr. Black, professor of social work and gerontology, is teaching a class this semester on the sociological aspects of aging and said her students plan to attend the lecture.
“They just went over living arrangements in class and now they get to hear about emerging trends in housing across the country,” she said. “As an instructor, we always love when course content intersects with the real world.”
Baker’s talk is set for Tuesday, Oct. 20, from 3 to 4:30 p.m., at the Selby Auditorium on the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus. The event is free. Visit Beth Baker tickets to make reservations.
Baker, whose visit is supported by Age-Friendly Sarasota, The Patterson Foundation and USF Sarasota-Manatee, is expected to talk for about 45 minutes about her book and the research behind it. She’ll also take audience questions and afterward sign copies of her book in the auditorium hallway.