Growing Independent

The Latino population is aging, and their needs and concerns are an issue of national significance. According to AARP, the number of Latinos aged 50+ in the United States is projected to grow from 9 million today to more than 35 million by 2050. Former San Antonio Mayor and HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros presents a thoughtful book on the challenges of helping seniors live independently. Independent for Life is not a theoretical study. It offers practical solutions, case studies, and plans of action drawn by experts. The book also gives readers a glimpse into the family life of one of our most admired Hispanic leaders. Below, Cisneros describes how he has cared for his aging mother.

My mother, Elvira Cisneros, is over eighty-five years old and lives independently. She lives in the home in the West Side neighborhood of San Antonio, Texas, that she and my father, George, bought as newlyweds in 1945, across the alley from the home of her mother and father, my grandparents, where she grew up. Most rooms of my mother’s home, a 1920s bungalow, are exactly as I remember them my entire life, down to the placement of the furniture in the rooms and the figurines on the shelves. I am the oldest of five siblings and will always remember a home that was a nurturing place full of encouragement, ambition, and pride in our Latino heritage. The neighborhood around us was supportive and active; every house on the block belonged to a hard-working, lower-middle-class Latino family with multiple children. I have often described it as a block that could well have been lifted from a Norman Rockwell painting, except that all of the faces would have been brown.

Over the years, some exterior modifications were made to the home to accommodate the realities of debilitation and aging. My father suffered a stroke at age fifty-nine in 1976 while on Army Reserve duty and lost full use of his left arm and left leg. Though some doctors advised that the stroke would accelerate the aging process and that he would likely live only another few years, owing to his disciplined commitment to therapy and exercise and to my mother’s care in their home, my dad lived thirty years after his stroke. He died at age eighty-nine in 2006.

To help him remain as active as his disabilities allowed—which included founding the San Antonio Stroke Club and creating a one-arm golf tournament—the house was modified to include a ramp along one side, a deck connected to the ramp to eliminate steep back-door steps, and a metal handrail leading up to the front porch. Inside, bathroom modifications, including lowered fixtures and a roll-in shower, made possible my dad’s use of a wheelchair in his later years.

Only in the last two years has my mom begun to visibly slow down and show some frailty herself. She hurt her knee rushing into the passenger seat of a car on a rainy day in 2009, and from the knee trauma came foot, ankle, and hip pain that lasted months. Pushed by her strong character, she worked hard to remain mobile and the earlier home modifications helped. She loves being in her home full of memories and has never for an instant considered moving to senior housing. She recognizes that she is slower and that organizing complex family events in her traditional manner is beyond her, so she now accepts that Christmas dinner can be at my home instead of stubbornly insisting that her home must be the holiday gathering place for my brothers and sisters and their families. I noticed recently that she wrote instructions to herself for operating the kitchen oven in large letters on masking tape and affixed them to the handles of a new stove. She accepted the installation of a security alarm system one Christmas and a Life Alert personal communications device the next year. By making these concessions, she contends that she can live in her beloved home for years to come.

Her attitude is mirrored by other seniors in this neighborhood that has itself aged, both in the longevity of the residents and in the physical attributes of the housing stock. Stella Tenorio, the ninety-four-year-old next-door neighbor who never married, keeps an immaculate house and mows her own yard with a manual reel mower. About ten years ago, she repelled a violent intruder by sliding under her bed and biting him when he reached for her. Rebecca Gonzalez, the neighbor on the other side, lived in her home until her nineties, and Lydia Mass across the street was at home until she died at age ninety-seven.

Many other older people in the innermost circle of my life have demonstrated similar attachments to their homes over the years. My wife’s father, Porfirio Perez, lived at home and worked with his wife, Annie, in the store they owned adjacent to their home until 2000, when he went to the hospital and passed away a few weeks later at age ninety-two. And Mrs. Perez died in her bed at home six years later at age ninety. My maternal grandfather, Romulo Munguia, worked in the print shop he founded and operated with a son until the day before he died at age ninety-three. He and my grandmother lived independently in the home that my wife and I later remodeled in that central city neighborhood and in which we raised our family.

It may seem from these examples that the older people in my life are all unusually long-lived and have particularly strong attachments to their homes. I do believe that Latinos develop intense love for their homes as places that evoke the memories of large extended families and years of lively social gatherings. But Latinos are by no means unique in their desire to be as independent as possible and to live in familiar surroundings for as long as they can. ...

The aging attributes of the Latino neighborhood I have described in San Antonio could just as easily be a Polish American parish in Chicago, Illinois; an African American community of row houses in Washington, DC; a Chinese American neighborhood in San Francisco, California; or a small town of German American heritage in Nebraska. The same ripples are spreading out across the nation: the growth of the aged population, the desire or need of older people to stay at home, and the imperative to engage family and community resources to create living settings that will enable people to live with dignity and to manage the process of aging supported by the comforting familiarity of the homes and communities in which they live.

As former secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and mayor of San Antonio and in my current role as a home-building executive, I have long been interested in housing and communities. With the sweeping demographic changes that are facing our nation, the ways our communities function must change. We, as a nation, must examine ways to support aging in place for the unprecedented numbers of older Americans seeking to live healthy and contributing lives in communities that serve all ages. Americans are aging in traditional homes, neighborhoods, and communities that were designed for yesterday’s demographic realities, not those of today or the future. The sheer size of the baby boom generation guarantees that, as the health and mobility of so many begins to deteriorate, communities could be saddled with an enormous burden. What can be done quickly and affordably to support successful aging in communities throughout the United States? What will be our plan for supporting the oldest of the old among us?

Fast-arriving changes in age, race, and ethnic composition of the population will have significant consequences for the creation of what have been called livable communities. Large segments of the population are at risk for health, social, and economic hardship. Suburbs, where most of the growth in the senior population will occur, create dependency on the automobile, with many homes being distant from jobs, services, and amenities.1 Rural communities struggle with transportation and service delivery issues. We can change our communities so that people living very long lives can live well. These changes must be made soon.

As we age, our needs and interests evolve and change, so our choices of housing should be wide ranging, as should be the spectrum of activities and services. There are a number of proven, affordable models that enhance independent living. Homes can be retrofitted, new age-appropriate homes built, existing neighborhoods reconnected, and new communities planned.

The enormity and complexity of such change is daunting. Financial strategies must adapt to new needs and opportunities. Public opinion must be better aligned with the values of accessibility, affordability, connectivity, and diversity. All levels of government must address these challenges with bold solutions.

During the years that I served as the mayor of San Antonio and spent many evenings listening to residents in neighborhood meetings across the city, I noticed repeated development patterns related to aging. In the same neighborhoods in which the population was aging, the housing stock was deteriorating and social needs were intensifying. As I listened to the older residents of those neighborhoods, I did not know then that those patterns were the local manifestations of what we now know to be the national forces of aging demographics, of physical isolation experienced by many older people, of unaffordable housing, and of diminishing social services funding. Over all these years, the frightened faces and plaintive voices of those older residents have stayed with me and spurred this search for public and private answers.

For this book, we have brought together experts in aging, architecture, construction, health, finance, and politics. We have asked experts on home renovation, urban design, community services, and finance to apply their professional knowledge to the needs of older Americans. Although diverse in expertise, they share a sense of urgency and determination to describe a new vision for aging in place and for living well at all ages.

Reprinted with permission from the University of Texas Press.