Thursday, October 22, 2009

The follies of age-segregation

Yesterday morning, the Today program featured a distressing story of a Florida community that is trying to evict Kimberly Broffman, a 6-year-old grandchild living with her grandparents in an age-segregated community. Like millions of other children across the country, Kimberly’s grandparents are caring for her, because her own birth parents are unable to do so. The grandparents have agreed to move out of the +55 community, but can’t sell their house in the collapsed Floridian housing market. The local neighborhood association is hoping a judge will order an eviction and the sheriff will remove Kimberly. The most likely result is that she would be placed in foster care.

The retirement community in Largo Florida needs to withdraw the eviction request and allow the family the chance to sell their home. It’s astonishing that the homeowners association could subvert what basic human decency demands in the name of upholding the homeowners association rules. More broadly, however, age-segregated communities across the country should use the recession as opportunity to reengage themselves as a resource for children and the community. Age-segregated housing keeps seniors, who are an invaluable resource to our children isolated and underutilized.

Fortunately, in contrast to the community in Largo there are already some innovative senior housing models for children whose parents can’t care for them. The neighborhood of Hope Meadows in Illinois is a converted decommissioned Air Force base where seniors get reduced rent in exchange for assisting foster or adoptive parents raising children by being mentors, tutors, and volunteer grandparents. Seniors and children benefit enormously from the community.

It’s easy to caricaturize this one incident and extrapolate it to the way all Floridians, or all seniors feel about children, but there are an abundance of instances where seniors come together in support of children. A few years ago, older adult voters over in Miami overwhelmingly approved a record billion-dollar education bond issue. Most of these older voters approved the bond issue despite the fact that their own grandchildren didn’t live in Miami.

America might have been able to afford a degree of age isolation in the past, but that now seems wasteful and improvident. Investments and resources are never as effectively used when they are aimed at a narrow age group than when they are leveraged between age cohorts and generations. The homeowners association in Largo are making a mistake trying to evict Kimberly Broffman, but there’s also missing an even larger opportunity to use their accumulated talents to serve as a resource for children.