Updated: Feb 5, 2022
ECO Generation Park: The Vision
Older adults 65 and over are the fastest-growing segment of our nation’s homeless, and the number of homeless older adults is forecasted to triple by 2030 (Culhane et al., 2019). Older homeless adults have unique health problems, including functional impairment, memory loss, and frequent falls (Brown et al., 2016). Affordability, physical accessibility, access to community services, and medical care are some of the housing challenges older adults, including those living in rural areas, are currently facing (Kushel, 2020).
Older adults living on a fixed monthly income face rapidly rising costs for health care, food, and housing, putting them over the financial edge while living one unexpected bill away from becoming homeless (Justice in Aging, 2021). Many older adults are also food insecure and forgo food, medication, and, in some cases, heat to pay their monthly rent (Justice in Aging, 2021). Furthermore, the percentage of older adult renters facing severe housing insecurity is rising exponentially, with Black and Latinx households disproportionally experiencing housing insecurity and homelessness due to a lifetime of inequities and racism (Justice in Aging, 2021).
Older homeless adults experience health conditions, including functional and cognitive impairment, 20 years earlier than housed older adults and often require costly acute healthcare services (Kushel, 2020). The growing number of aged homeless will increase the need for expensive health and nursing home stays (Culhane et al., n.d.). Older homeless adults living in unsheltered dwellings have a much higher prevalence of falls, a common cause of morbidity (Brown et al., 2020).
As our nation’s population of older adults increases, older adults living with disabilities (including dementia) also increase with higher incidences among minority, low-income, and renter households (Office of Policy Development and Research, 2017). Our current housing stock is unaffordable for many older adults and does not meet the needs of older adults with disabilities. Fewer than 4 percent of residential units are livable for people with mobility disabilities, and only 1 percent of units are wheelchair accessible (Office of Policy Development and Research, 2017).
Furthermore, the need for long-term care services and support is forecasted to significantly increase with our aging population (Favreault & Dey, 2021). Medicare does not cover long-term care, and only 8% of Americans have long-term care insurance (Favreault & Dey, 2021). There is a dire need for innovative, cost-effective ways to provide long-term care and support for older adults.
A tidal wave of older adult homelessness is upon us, creating excess age-related health care costs, premature disability, avoidable illnesses, exacerbated morbidity, and accelerated mortality (Culhane et al., 2019). Innovative and collaborative solutions on the local, state, and national levels are desperately needed to end older adult home insecurity and homelessness. Our nation needs affordable and accessible age-friendly housing integrated with social and health supports (Justice in Aging, 2021). By recognizing that housing is health care and can improve the health outcomes for older adults and people of all ages, we can generate community-first policies and models creating housing for all (Justice in Aging, 2021).
Affordable, innovative, age-friendly, elder-centered, intergenerational, and resident-sustained housing models are needed to end the emerging crisis of older adult home insecurity and prevent homelessness for all ages. I introduce ‘ECO-Generation Park’ as an innovative housing model to address older adult home insecurity by prioritizing an eco-focused, intergenerational, learn, work and live community using impact collaboration to supply our nation with options that support our most vulnerable people to thrive.
ECO-Generation Park is Resident Sustained. While there are other community-based housing models, ECO-Generation Park is unique in that the park is not just a place to live; it is also a place to learn and earn. Permanent residents also work at ECO-Generation Park; older residents who need long-term care, memory care, or assistance with activities of daily living are cared for by trained care teams who live on the property. Residents do not have to leave the community simply because their care needs increase.
In addition, older and younger residents have opportunities to earn a dignified income working in the farm and garden, educational center, campground/glampground, and health center. The ‘Community First! Village’ in Austin, Texas, is a similar community-based housing model with on-site work opportunities for the formerly chronically homeless (Urban Land Institute, 2017).
In addition to work opportunities, ECO-Generation Park houses an educational center with year-round, lifelong learning. Research has shown the boomer generation has high academic acumen and a strong interest in lifelong learning (Boyle, 2020). The intergenerational make-up of the community will fill the knowledge gap experienced with the boomer generation leaving the workforce will be filled at ECO-Generation Park with on-site work and educational opportunities (Boyle, 2020).
In Tallahassee, Florida, ‘The Dwellings’ is a tiny home community created to bridge the housing gap offering housing and supportive services for low-to-moderately low-income residents (Jackson et al., 2020). The Dwellings has a balanced mixture of residents; 50% middle of the road, 25% anchors, and another 25% of struggling residents (Jackson et al., 2020). ECO-Generation Park will have a similar mixture, with 25% consisting of older residents who need higher levels of care, including those living with dementia. ECO-Generation Park is an all-age and dementia-friendly community.
ECO-Generation Park is ECO-Focused. Many affordable housing models in the United States are not designed to emphasize and interact with the biodiversity of landscapes. Every aspect of ECO-Generation Park is rooted in the appreciation of and immersion into the natural world. Micro homes and long-term care housing will have visibility to the natural world (trees, gardens), nature trails, and garden spaces will be wheelchair, walker, and dementia-friendly.
Many community activities occur in the on-site gardens, farm, and animal preserve. Research has shown communities with higher proportions of green space (biodiverse habitats) are associated with longevity, lower anxiety, depression, and stress (Thompson, 2018).
The design and care provided (and taught) at ECO-Generation Park are rooted in ‘green care’. While green care is a common practice in Europe and Asia, we have yet to fully embrace this holistic, whole-person approach here in the United States (Artz & Davis, 2017). Green care activities use nature to produce social, health, and educational benefits, including horticulture, gardening, farm, and pet therapy (Piccinini & Gagliardi, 2020).
Research on the impact of green care programs for older adults is very promising, showing increased psychological well-being, social engagement, vitality, balance, increased hydration, and improved diet for participants (Piccinini & Gagliardi, 2020). In addition, green care programs help older adults become aware of their value and foster lifelong learning (Piccinini & Gagliardi, 2020).
Several Dutch and Norwegian studies have thoroughly examined green care and care farms for people living with dementia. These studies show contact with nature and animals, time spent outdoors, physical activity, meaningful engagement, and healthy eating contribute to people living with dementia and their caregivers (de Bruin et al., 2020). Memory care practiced in the United States involves lower levels of physical activity, less time spent outdoors, few social interactions, and a lack of meaningful engagement (de Bruin et al., 2020).
The care farm has shown to be less stigmatizing as it is a non-institutional environment. Studies show people with dementia living at care farms or who participate in the day programs often feel like a volunteer or employee rather than a patient with cognitive and functional impairments, enhancing their sense of connection (de Bruin et al., 2020).
In the green care/farm care model, individuals living with dementia are recognized and seen as people who can provide a meaningful contribution. In addition, studies have shown care farms promote respite and lessen feelings of guilt for family caregivers (de Bruin et al., 2020). ECO-Generation Park educational center will be where researchers in the United States can further examine the effects of green/farm care for all ages and abilities.
ECO-Generation Park is Elder-Centered. Research has shown that permanent supportive housing, subsidized housing with supportive on-site services, may reduce acute care utilization that is common among home insecure and homeless older adults (Brown et al., 2017). Over 65% of older adults have chronic illnesses, and nursing home costs are astronomical (Viveiros & Brennan, 2014).
Community-based supportive services have successfully ensured older adults can age in place (Viveiros & Brennan, 2014). Barriers impacting aging-in-place include caring for oneself, mobility, and lack of affordable housing (Viveiros & Brennan, 2014). ECO-Generation Park offers affordable housing and a wide range of support services for residents and visitors (day program).
ECO-Generation Park is Intergenerational. In more traditional affordable housing settings, residents are more likely to live alone, have higher rates of chronic conditions, few social supports, and lower incomes (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2014). Affordable housing models need to include opportunities for older residents to engage with and contribute to their communities through volunteerism, employment, and lifelong learning programs (Henkin et al., 2017).
Intergenerational programming brings residents together in purposeful, meaningful, and mutually beneficial ways that contribute to greater respect between generations while building a more cohesive community (Henkin et al., 2017). Research has shown that high-quality intergenerational programs can decrease social isolation increase a sense of belonging, self-esteem, and well-being (Henkin et al., 2017).
Generations of Hope, an intentional intergenerational housing model, emphasizes how people of multiple generations lead to a community culture consisting of mutual concern and effective care (Generations of Hope, n.d.).
The intergenerational approach to housing and caring for older adults is not typical, and many gaps occurring in age-segregated housing communities can be bridged with this model.
Older adults become ‘grandparents’ for the young children offering a sense of meaning and value, and the children bring joy and possibility (Generations of Hope, n.d.). Intergenerational living provides a sense of reciprocal care for residents of all ages. Multiple generations can create a sense of resiliency, promoting a thriving community.
In times of change, pandemics, climate disasters, intergenerational living provides safety and adaptability through caring relationships. Most importantly, building intergenerational social capital paves the way toward eradicating ageism (Henkin et al., 2017).
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