A few years back, a Domino’s pizza delivery worker named Susan Guy began to worry about one of her elderly customers, Jean Wilson, who had ordered a pizza a day for three years. Guy hadn't received an order from Wilson for a few days, so she went to Wilson’s house and knocked on the door. When Wilson didn’t answer, Guy checked with a neighbor and then called the police, who beat down the door and found that the elderly woman had fallen and was unable to reach the phone to call for help. The woman was rushed to the hospital, and survived the ordeal.
The story illustrates one of the biggest fears many seniors and their families face about aging alone. What if something should happen? What if no one is there to help?
To avoid ending up in situations like Wilson’s, seniors often move to assisted-living communities and to nursing homes, shepherded there by their worried children. This is a pricey proposition—assisted living costs, on average, $3,000 a month, and some Continuing Care Retirement Communities require seniors to cough up a hefty down payment, say $250,000, for their apartment (which sometimes is refunded to heirs upon the resident’s death).
But the economics of this aren’t going to work for much longer. By 2050, one-fifth of the total U.S. population—about 88 million people—will be 65 and older. Many of them won’t have saved enough money for an assisted living or retirement community. Some low-income seniors may be able to get Medicaid to pay for nursing home costs, but states and local government budgets will have a hard time handling the crunch, and besides, many of the places that take Medicaid are under-staffed and run-down. Many aging people will not find them to their liking.
These are all reasons why an increasing number of people are saying that seniors should stay at home as they age. This change could save the nation billions of dollars—one study found that the median monthly payment for non-institutional long-term care was $928 compared to $5,423 for nursing homes. But shifting seniors to aging at home is going to require a much bigger commitment on the part of everyday Americans—like the Domino’s woman—to pitch in and help their aging neighbors thrive. It’s going to require neighbors to check in on one another all the time; it's going to require college students to provide care to the aged and infirm; it's going to require that everyone thinks more about the elderly people around them, and volunteer to take them grocery shopping or shuttle them to a doctor's appointment. (Yes, including you.)