OPINION | How Not To Grow Old in America


Stephanie Weaver holds a photo of Bonnie Walker, her grandmother, who suffered from dementia. Credit: Leigh Webber for Kaiser Health News

The assisted living industry is booming, by tapping into the fantasy that we can all be self-sufficient until we die.


Assisted living seems like the solution to everyone’s worries about old age. It’s built on the dream that we can grow old while being self-reliant and live that way until we die. That all you need is a tiny bit of help. That you would never want to be warehoused in a nursing home with round-the-clock caregivers. This is a powerful concept in a country built on independence and self-reliance.


The problem is that for most of us, it’s a lie. And we are all complicit in keeping this dream alive.


The assisted living industry, for one, has a financial interest in sustaining a belief in this old-age nirvana. Originally designed for people who were mostly independent, the number of assisted living facilities has nearly tripled in the past 20 years to about 30,000 today. It’s a lucrative business: Investors in these facilities have enjoyed annual returns of nearly 15 percent over the past five years — higher than for hotels, office, retail and apartments, according to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care.


The children of seniors need to believe it, too. Many are working full time while also raising a family. Adding the care of elderly parents would be a crushing burden.


Assisted living seems like the solution to everyone’s worries about old age. It’s built on the dream that we can grow old while being self-reliant and live that way until we die. That all you need is a tiny bit of help. That you would never want to be warehoused in a nursing home with round-the-clock caregivers. This is a powerful concept in a country built on independence and self-reliance.


The problem is that for most of us, it’s a lie. And we are all complicit in keeping this dream alive.


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By Geeta Anand

Ms. Anand, formerly a reporter for The New York Times, is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism.

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