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Reflections April 2015

At the Core

What Worked for The Golden Girls -- An Alternative Model for Assisted Living

By Marilyn Cappellino

Studies have shown that shared housing also contributes to a lightness of spirit. Some psychologists, like Harvard's Ellen Langer, author of Mindfulness, might say that what kept the Golden Girls vital and socially engaged is a lifestyle that mimicked how they lived in younger years: maybe in a college dorm, or a sorority house, or a loving, extended family situation.

If I ever found myself old and alone, I'd want to live like the Golden Girls. It seems to me those four women captured an ideal form of assisted living – one far more affordable, effective and fun then the kind you purchase with your entire life savings.

From 1985-1992, when NBC aired the popular series, the main characters in “The Golden Girls” lived a nice life. They shared a spacious Miami ranch-style home with a large kitchen, ample dining space, a first floor laundry room, well-appointed living room, a lanai and garden. All this, at just 25 percent the cost of living similarly on one's own. And like expenses, chores were shared as well. Each woman did about one quarter of the tasks necessary to a household: cooking, shopping, cleaning, budgeting and paying bills. This arrangement allowed all the girls a contribution big enough to maintain a sense of purpose, but also allowed plenty of free time. Not bad.

The Golden Girls' model is similar to the way extended families used to live. Before 1960,  America glamorized the nuclear family lifestyle, multiple generations of relatives and friends often lived under one roof. A grandparent, a sister, an uncle or cousin lived with mom, dad and kids. The arrangement cost a bit of privacy, but also helped a family in countless ways. Typically, expenses were shared. So were chores.

Maybe more importantly, someone was always around to help with everyday stuff: move a chair, carry groceries, babysit, granny-sit, organize pills, remind you to eat. If one was to fall, another was there to find her. That's how it was with the Golden Girls. If Dorothy was out late at night, Rose and Blanche were there to keep company with Sophia, her elder mother. In a house full of people you know and trust, scary things like sounds in the night, blizzards, earthquakes, spiking fevers, and worrisome chest pain are just easier to handle.

Studies have shown that shared housing also contributes to a lightness of spirit. Some psychologists, like Harvard's Ellen Langer, author of Mindfulness, might say that what kept the Golden Girls vital and socially engaged is a lifestyle that mimicked how they lived in younger years: maybe in a college dorm, or a sorority house, or a loving, extended family situation. Langer's studies, particularly her early work with the elderly that led to her now famous Counterclockwise Theory, show that reliving patterns of happier times has positive mental and physical effects. The singing, laughing, dancing and dining that the girls did together actually may have nurtured their youthful vigor.

Did the Golden Girls have differences? Of course. Arguments? No question. But was their lifestyle worth it? Absolutely. Just consider a couple of alternatives.

Living with one's children is so infrequently proposed today, that it hardly merits mentioning. Most seniors find this option plagued with worry of being unwelcome, and fear of being burdensome, both of which are strains on the senior psyche.

Assisted living facilities can give you physical help plus some social interaction. But institutional-type living, even in charming places with relaxed restrictions, signals a loss of independence, and rarely feels like home. Also, it is costly. According to AARP figures released in 2011, private room costs differ among the states and can range anywhere from $28,500-$60,000 annually.

Life isn't cheap for those living alone either. Besides paying full household expenses, costly in-home care at some point is likely to be needed. The CDC website reports that 1 in 3 adults aged 65 and older falls each year, and that 20 to 30 percent of those who fall suffer an injury that will "make it hard to get around or live independently ..." Any injury or illness, in fact, generally requires some form of light help during recuperation.

And then there are other risks known to threaten seniors living alone: malnourishment, unattended illness, depression and loneliness that can come from the painful silence of an empty house.

Yes, the Golden Girls had it right. They didn't rely on their kids, or others that labeled them "old." They opted for a comfortable and active lifestyle, and chose to give one another assistance rather than pay strangers for it. And they had company. Though they sometimes bickered, the girls had a friend at the ready to talk, laugh, cry with...and that at any age is priceless.

 

Marilyn Cappellino is a syndicated columnist living in Buffalo, NY, a rebounding city where, she happily notes, her five grandchildren also reside.

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