Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What's a NORC Without a NORC SSP?

A few month backs, my sister and I helped my mother move from the family home of 48 years into a senior living community.

Mom was doing well in her home, still mentally sharp, eating well, and engaged with friends.  She adjusted after my father passed away five years ago and found a new life that worked for her.  But her risk of falling and sustaining a serious injury was a constant concern.  Friends were advising my sister and me of their worries about her living arrangements, not that we needed the reminders.

After discussing the alternatives, including in-home support, Mom decided that a senior community was the best fit for her.  So we helped her pack up and make the move.  She’s doing well in her new setting, making friends, enjoying the vista from her apartment, and seemingly content to be out from under the burdens of home maintenance.

But I can still look back at the family home, now listed for sale, and observe the urbanist lessons to be learned.

My parents built the home in 1967, one of the first houses in a custom-home subdivision near the American River in Carmichael, an unincorporated portion of Sacramento County northeast of Sacramento.  With relatively large lots, an absence of through traffic, and proximity to the river, it was a desirable place for couples of my parents’ age to build homes and to settle in for a long stay.

(Although I lacked the words to express myself at age 14, I was less enthralled with the location, sensing that I was far removed from schools, friends, and interesting places to visit.  Luckily, at age 14, I could hop on a bike and overcome some of the deficiencies of living in a home with a Walk Score of 11.  Plus, the allure of having a backyard pool and of being able to easily wet a fishing line in the river overcame some of the unease with the location.)

Flashing forward 48 years, a surprising number of the original homeowners in the subdivision remain in place.  Less surprisingly, they’re all 48 years older, which means that the physical infirmities of the elder years are an increasing part of their lives.

The neighborhood has become a NORC, a naturally occurring retirement community, a concept that I described a few month when writing about senior living in urban settings.

To their credit, four-plus decades of friendly waves, holiday parties, and shared fence maintenance tasks have created something of a community.  Neighbors take in mail for those who are away, provide assistance with moving garbage cans, watch for suspicious sorts walking the sidewalks, and even stay alert for the first daily appearance of one another.  Not only is the neighborhood a NORC, but it’s a NORC with a level of mutual support.

But that mutual support isn’t enough to truly make seniors safe.  Although no tragedies have happened in my mother’s long-time neighborhood, we all know stories of seniors who have fallen or been stricken with a medical condition and who have waited an agonizingly long time before anyone became aware of their plight.  Cell phone and medic alert buttons are great, as far as they go, but nothing compares with having another person actively checking on a senior’s well-being.  And my mother’s former neighborhood didn’t meet that standard.

As described by Kriston Capps in CityLab, New York City has been working for 30 years with the concept of Naturally Occurring Retirement Community Supportive Service Networks, or NORC SSPs, striving to provide a more attentive level of service for seniors.  And, although more funding will always be needed, the concept is finding success.

Although every SSP will likely be unique, the general concept is mutual support between aging neighbors, described in a report quoted by Capps as “a determinant of well-being in old age”, supplemented by a layer of oversight from trained geriatric professionals, not intrusive, but alert to the possible need for assistance.

This subject is relevant to this blog because, as Capps notes, NORC SSPs have had their “greatest gains in New York, in part because the city's high density allows for the kind of NORC that's easiest to support.”  So urbanism can be a key element in the concept.

Personally, I love the idea of a group of 85 year olds meeting every day for coffee, with one of them toddling off to check if someone is unexpectedly absent, supplemented by geriatric oversight.   Indeed, I hope to be a member of a group like that when I’m 85.  But that kind of community isn’t well-suited to single-family homes where the nearest coffee shop is a ten-minute drive away and many of residents should never again be behind a wheel.

I’ll always appreciate the neighbors who remained aware of my mother’s well-being during her final years in Carmichael, but wish that there were more urban settings where she and my father could have moved ten or fifteen years, to begin nurturing an even stronger support network.

Next time, I’ll write more about Carmichael.  With my mother moved into senior living, it fell to me to finish cleaning up the family home, preparing it for sale.  Those tasks gave me a reason to take a final, lingering look around my hometown.  Saying goodbye brought up good memories and causes for urbanist dismay.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


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  2. I have no expectation or desire for living now in my hometown of Sharon, Massachusetts, but it is where I went to high school (at least for ninth grade), and for me that does make it my hometown. Petaluma now ranks a close and well-loved second. When Janie and I moved here in 1985, I wanted to find a home we could live, grow old and die in. I like to think we did just that.

    Within urbanist walking distance (walk score 85) to post office, grocery, hardware, bank, feed store, City Hall, four parks, theatre, Aqus and Dempsey's, et al, and with picturesque streets and friendly neighbors on all sides, I have no interest in ever making anywhere else my home. With the hoped-for blessings of health and community services, I may well die right here on Sixth Street. If I live to my mother’s age of 99, that will be in 2046, hopefully ahead of the rising tides from nearby Petaluma Slough, also in walking distance!