Dear Next Mayor of Chicago,
As steward of the common good, an important task for the next Mayor of Chicago will be to guard old age from becoming a mockery of our widely-held vision of “the golden years.” And guard all of us, not just those with ample savings, supportive family and robust health.
Over 102,000 senior households in the city of Chicago subsist on $30,000 or less per year. Nearly four of five older Chicagoans who rent and more than one in three homeowners can barely afford food, medicine and life's other necessities. Displacement is a daily fear for many of these Chicago residents.
Housing struggles are even more pronounced for seniors of color in our city, especially if they live in a low-income neighborhood. In his recent study, The Death Gap: How Inequality Kills, Dr. David Ansell of Rush University Medical Center describes a “structural violence” that helps explain the growing life expectancy gap between predominantly white neighborhoods (84 years) and Black neighborhoods (70 years).
We know too well the factors at work here. There's racial segregation and the consequent maldistribution of resources. This is a moral issue that requires our next mayor to pose this question with every policy decision she or he will face: How will my decision affect the most vulnerable and isolated persons in our city?
One promising way to defeat social isolation and economic despair among the low-income elderly is to promote and support age-inclusive housing development. Rather than pigeonhole older adults in “senior housing,” Chicago can work with lenders, developers, and community leaders to create intergenerational housing that brings young and old together. This has worked wonders at two of the multi-unit buildings run by Housing Opportunities & Maintenance for the Elderly (H.O.M.E.). At Pat Crowley House and Nathalie Salmon House on the North Side, seniors rub shoulders and share wisdom with young working families. You’d be amazed how the laughter of a child will perk up a day room!
Chicago can also increase its support of programs that give older adults the ability to stay in their own homes. There’s no reason they should be relegated to costly nursing homes simply because they cannot climb rickety stairs or step into an old-fashioned bathtub.
H.O.M.E. and other experienced non-profits have developed programs that deliver affordable home repair and modifications, in-home health care, friendly visiting or safety checks, healthful meals, even door-to-door transit to shopping, exercise classes, arts and community events. These services, often staffed by volunteers, can be scaled-up at very little public cost compared to far more confining – and expensive – alternatives, like nursing home placement.
“The moral test of government,” said Hubert Humphrey, “is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
Each and every human being has gifts and older adults in particular have an accumulation of wisdom and experience from which we can all benefit. It is up to all of us, led by Chicago’s top elected officials, to demonstrate through our actions our respect for life’s veterans.
Gail Schechter, Executive Director