More humane spaces that favor coexistence and are defined by the real needs of those who inhabit them; this is the housing model in which, according to experts, Spain’s over-55s would like to live. This group includes 15.8 million people, 34% of the population, who account for 26% of GDP and 60% of national consumption. We spoke with Mayte Sancho, a gerontologist, about the care and living needs of today’s older adults.
TEXT: RAFAEL CONDE
Rethinking current formats and proposing new residential and urban models, building centers that do not segregate, with environments that favor social gatherings and from which it is easy to access health and social services. In addition, older adults want to live in friendlier cities, where they can coexist with other generations, continue to lead an active life, socially, culturally and occupationally, and continue to be useful to society.
These are some of the conclusions of the Housing Solutions for Seniors meeting, organized by the Ageingnomics Research Center last May, to analyze one of the challenges facing our society today: the need to adapt the housing offer to the new life circumstances of the over-55s.
To further explore this fascinating topic, we spoke to the three speakers from the series; in the next issue we will be joined by José Antonio Granero, an architect, and Juan Fernández-Aceytuno, CEO of Sociedad de Tasación, who will give us their views on housing in the context of the silver economy. In this issue, Mayte Sancho, a graduate in psychology from the Complutense University of Madrid and with a master’s degree in gerontology from the Autonomous University of Madrid, gives us her specialist perspective on care and the need to rethink housing models for older adults and adapt them to their new life circumstances.
What conclusions can we draw from the experiences of many older people during the pandemic?
I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic, which is still giving rise to very important measures and restrictions, especially in the field of residential care for the elderly, has been absolutely tragic. It is responsible for thousands of deaths, but also for tremendous suffering, with decisions having been made that, once again, are the product of a social outlook that is totally discriminatory towards the elderly. Some people had to spend three or four months locked up in a small room, sometimes just 10 or 12 meters square, and when they came out of there, they displayed cognitive impairment. Even if these symptoms had been incipient when they went in, when they were released, due to their seriousness, there was no turning back.
It is essential that lessons are learned from this experience, and one of these, a very important one, is that people have the capacity to make decisions at any time in their lives.
Should we leave the burden of care for the elderly to public institutions or is society’s responsibility as a whole?
The issue of care is, curiously enough, a relatively new topic. There is a consensus that care represents the sustainability of life, but today it falls beyond the sphere of the family, which is where it has always been dealt with without any apparent problems. This change came about when women began to leave the domestic sphere to enter the workplace, and we hope that in this there will be no looking back…
The consequence is that care is now a social problem that affects not only the public authorities, but also families, who continue to be the main caregivers in situations of dependency; but also social and private initiatives that, in many cases, collaborate with the public authorities, managing public services and, logically, offering their products to other sectors of the population.
The issue of care is a bottomless pit in which nothing and no-one is superfluous, it requires the presence and active participation of everyone: public authorities, families, social organizations, community environments and private initiatives, and this is where we need some kind of agreement.
As life expectancy lengthens, families are facing a major cultural change brought about by this new scenario that affects their relationship with their elders, both in terms of involvement in their care and in the management of the financial resources necessary for their well-being. Are we living in a time of transition?
I believe that this transition is taking place in a completely diverse environment. To speak of the ‘elderly’ and include people aged 60 or 65 is too gross a generalization because we are talking about a population of almost 10 million people and, above all, about a diversity that is becoming more accentuated. Today, the group of older adults is more diverse than any other age group and incorporates, or integrates, quite a few generations. With this in mind, we must emphasize the enormous strength of tradition in Spain, especially in rural areas and in smaller regions where inheritance has had and continues to have enormous significance; in the past this represented the continuity of a professional life project and, currently, it continues to be viewed as a kind of obligation and responsibility the older generations have to younger people.
This can lead to a certain ‘abuse’, in the sense that families, including sons and daughters, also have a great deal of influence over the decisions made by the elderly. We return once again to the issue of ageism and age discrimination. It would appear that a person who is over 80 years old needs some kind of support or guidance to make decisions, but nothing could be further from the truth. We now have a US president who is approaching 80 years of age. The ability to make decisions should not be conditioned by age.
What do you think of alternative care solutions for older people such as coliving, cohousing or residences for LGTBI groups?
They are undoubtedly very important, this is actually already a reality, especially in countries in central and northern Europe, but also in the United States, Canada and Australia; let’s say in all ‘developed’ countries, although this is a somewhat controversial term. These countries have been working on this issue for more than half a century. Here it is coming along a little late, and what worries me is that the advocates of this type of alternative solution are not taking sufficient heed of the experience accumulated in other countries.
I believe that, at this point in time, with such a large increase in life expectancy and until we find solutions to the dependency situation of so many people, any alternative must include the concept of ‘lifelong’ housing. Cohousing cannot just mean “Until I start to need help and then I have to find a different solution”, because that, even from a business, or market, standpoint, has no future. It has happened in Denmark and it has happened in Sweden, many cohousing facilities have been converted into apartments with services or other alternatives that respond to the needs of people. If this is not the case, in my opinion, they have little future.
The issue of care is a bottomless pit in which nothing and no-one is superfluous, it requires the presence and active participation of everyone: public authorities, families, social organizations, community environments and private initiatives
What role does education play in facing this new reality?
Education always plays a key role. We need to focus on childhood as the best time to instill a non-ageist view of our elders, because at that age children have a very friendly and very satisfactory relationship with their grandparents. Grandparents are no longer that distant figure that had to be respected, now we grandparents are very attractive to children because we do things with them that they cannot do with their parents.
This establishes a relationship of equality, the role of grandparents is valued and there is no longer such a discriminatory approach. And everything else stems from this, because the moment I respect you as a person who is equal to me, I am not going to decide for you nor am I going to tell you that what you have earned and accumulated, either better or worse, throughout your life, really belongs to me. That is the approach to inheritance where, sometimes, children play a very questionable role because they do not help their parents to enjoy their savings when they are in need, because they believe that this is their inheritance. Here is where education comes in, for example, in basic things such as making it very clear to older people that they do not have to hand over their property to their children until the appropriate time, and that their assets are theirs.
What pathways do we need to follow to address this new demographic situation that is generating a change in terms of accommodations and care?
The first key is to combat ageism, because as long as we feel that there is a population group that is different, that has less decisionmaking capacity, and for whom we can make decisions, there will be a whole set of public and private policies and strategies based on the fact that we are the ones who make the decisions. For this reason, the first thing we must do is to put people at the center, so that they can decide about their future, that they are sufficiently informed and advised, of course, with good advice from non-interested parties, whenever possible.
From this point, if we listen to the elderly, they will always tell us that they want to grow old in their own surroundings. So we need to create friendly environments for the whole population, and the elderly are part of that whole. The other big issue, associated with discrimination and which may seem very abstract, is the recognition of the concept of equality between people. I am much more in favor of the concept of equality than of respect because, I don’t know why, equality has disappeared when we talk about the elderly; children are taught that the elderly must be respected and, obviously, the elderly must also respect children and young people, as well as everyone else. If we focus society on equality and, therefore, on people’s rights, things will change, or so I hope.