For more stories on elder care, check out the rest of America Tonight’s special series “Aging America.”
Ann Pliska lives in a cabin built by her father in the mountains of New Hampshire. But she can hardly keep the wood-burning stove fed, or the snow shoveled.
“It’s been tough getting older because things start happening,” said the 63-year-old, who broke her collarbone five years ago. “I felt myself not able to do everything I used to be able to do.”
Pliska isn’t sick or disabled; she’s simply aging. And the winters here show no mercy to the elderly. For Pliska, simple tasks like keeping the pipes from freezing are overwhelming.
“I have no water in the winter, and the heat is primarily a wood stove,” she said. "Having these guys come over to stack it has been a godsend.”
“These guys” aren’t a couple of college kids on winter break. They're seniors, or almost seniors, themselves. All of them belong to a “village,” a new type of old-age community, where they help each other stay in their own homes for longer. This village is called Monadnock at Home, and it serves seven different towns surrounding Mount Monadnock in western New Hampshire.
With the recent cold wave, Dwight Schenk, 67, gathers up extra wood to ensure that Pliska stays warm.
Schenk grew up in the shadow of Mount Monadnock before moving to Boston for work. When the time to retire arrived, he decided to move back. He loves this state, even the winters. But he feels the effects of getting older too.
“I used to downhill-ski a lot as a kid,” he said. “I don’t do that as much (anymore).”
He’s happy to snow-blow and shovel snow, but Schenk knows that not long from now, he’ll be on the receiving end.
‘When I’m 65’
“Sixty-five is the day everything changes,” said Susan McWhinney-Morse, who founded the concept of senior villages in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood 12 years ago.
“Suddenly, one day, you’re old,” she said. “You didn’t know it the day before, but at 65, you’re old. I hated turning 65.”
McWhinney-Morse teamed up with friends who shared the same vision. They wanted to stay connected to their community, and she recognized that everyone needed a little help — and that eventually some of us will need a lot of it.
and nothing else.
It helps that seniors are often retired, with time to kill. Around 10,000 Americans are turning 65 every day, and that number will continue for the better part of two decades. That’s a lot of able-bodied people slowly dropping out of the workforce.
“Work stops at 65, and you have 30 more years to go,” said McWhinney-Morse, now in her 80s. “You better make sure you have a lifestyle in those 30 years. Thirty years is a long time to play golf and nothing else.”
Younger seniors are also less likely to be condescending, she pointed out.
“All of us are afraid of being pandered to, of being dumbed down,” she said. “I hate people who come and take my elbow and try to help me across the street because I have white hair. I want to say, ‘Sonny, cut that out!’”
An uphill battle
At 53, Larry Davis is the youngster of the group, and enjoys it. He knows more about snowdrifts on Mount Monadnock than he does about old age, and he’s always got a story about a picture he’s taken or the last mountain he climbed.
“This last snowstorm, it carved some really, really cool-looking stuff,” he said. “I found a snowdrift that was in the shape of like the snowboarders’ halfpipe, and it aimed right at the sun.”
When asked who might take care of him when he gets older, Davis avoids the conversation. He never thought he'd make it this far, he admitted. He’s shared some close relationships with fast motorcycles and stiff drinks.
“I have been on borrowed time for most of my life,” he said.
Single with no kids, Davis said thoughts of his future do creep up on him, despite his best efforts. Climbing Mount Monadnock helps him convince himself he’s pushed off old age a little longer. He hiked up the mountain every day, 2,850 days in a row, in ice storms, rain and shine, until a bout of pneumonia stopped him.
“When I went to see the doctor, he said another hike could have killed me,” he remembered. "I was determined to come back and prove to myself that I could do this, that I wasn't getting old."
He wants to be the oldest person to reach the top.
Learning to grow old
The younger seniors benefit, too, from an intimate lesson in what awaits them.
Schenk’s rounds occasionally take him to the home of Tuck Gilbert, a former minister, and his wife, Bobby. During a recent snowstorm, he brought their snow tires up from the basement. And in between these household tasks, they often talk life and death.
“Sometimes people don’t want to talk about death,” Tuck Gilbert said. “Well, why the heck not? It’s there; it’s going to happen. So it isn’t a subject we tend to avoid."
“We’ve also said recently, we haven’t grown old before,” Bobby Gilbert added. “We have a lot to learn."
Her husband agrees: "We’re beginners at this.”
Hoping to help other novices to the aging game, Bobby Gilbert created a booklet on how to arrange affairs after a loved one dies. And she’s giving her husband cooking lessons in case she’s the one who goes first.
“I never liked cooking; I was never very good at it,” he said. “Bobby takes special efforts to help me learn how to cook if I'm alone or she's in a hospital or nursing home.”
Schenk loves being part of people’s lives and being able to help, but there are drawbacks to the work. He assisted a woman with computer issues for a while. Sometimes they would just chat. And then one day she suddenly died.
“I think that hit me as hard as anything recently,” he said.
The emotional attachment isn’t in the job description. But being part of that woman's life, and being part of this community, he said, has made it all worth it.