Researchers keep producing articles and reports saying that older people want to live at home. Well, duh! If you ask anyone about living at home you’re going to get the same response. What I really want to know is, of those people who are infirm, that is, cannot make it to the bathroom on their own, feed themselves, go to the store, or bathe themselves safely (all the Activities of Daily Living), how many of them want to live at home, especially if it means living by themselves? That’s the really important piece of information needed to make real decisions and policies.
I find it curious that when you ask these same older people about whether they'd want to live at home if they knew their family would have to take care of them, they respond “No.”
What’s also curious to me is, what is the real question these respondents are answering? When my mother-in-law was living in an assisted living facility she kept repeating to us, “I want to go home.” We kept wondering what she meant and asked, “Where do you mean?” Turns out, she didn’t mean the last place she had lived in before moving into the facility. Or even to the house she and her husband lived in for 40 years. She meant the past. She wanted to go back to the time when she was living in her wonderful home with her family and most of her life was ahead of her.
I’m in the demographic group that researchers survey. That is, I’m “over 65.” (According to a widely cited study by the AARP, almost 90% of those 65 and older want to stay in their current homes for as long as possible.) And of course I want to live at home. If I didn’t, I'd move. And if could afford it, I’d move myself into a hotel or, better yet, a full-time resort. Or if I didn’t like my current home, I’d move to another one. The key here is that I know I’m perfectly capable of living by myself.
I also want to know the feelings people would have about living "at home" if they knew they'd be living alone. I think we know the answer to that. After my stepmother died, my father lived in the apartment by himself and had a caregiver live there with him. The apartment was far from me and from my brother. My father wasn’t mobile, he had few friends since he had outlived most of them, and the few that were left never came to visit. Plus, he needed someone to live with him — to prepare his meals, clean, get him to and from the bathroom, etc., all the activities of daily living. Still, he said he wanted to stay in the apartment. And so he did. After a few months he told us that it was getting too hard for him and he was feeling too lonely being by himself all the time, even with the caregiver we had hired. So then he told us he wanted to move, and it was with our blessing. He moved into an assisted living facility closer to my brother, and there my father lived out the rest of his life. He was much happier there and had frequent visits from the family. He didn’t have a lot of friends at the facility. But meals were with other people and sometimes they talked with each other. He went to a few activities and again, he interacted with people, not just the one caregiver he would have had access to at home. He told me, close to the end of his life as it turned out, that he was happy there. He used the word “content.” Moving to the facility was definitely the right thing to do. And had researchers asked him about whether he wanted to live at home, he would have said, “No, I didn’t want to live at home.” For one, he had too many bad memories of what it had been like for him at home after his wife died. But really, he would have said, “I couldn’t manage by myself and, frankly, I was lonely.”
So I challenge researchers to sample the right population before making sweeping comments about how “older people” want to live in their homes. Also, researchers, be sure you define what the word “home” means to the people you’re surveying. “90% want to live at home” makes a great headline. But it’s a meaningless statistic.
For more information on assisted living, contact Spring Arbor.