Men Moving Into Rest Homes

Tom Murphy

For decades, retirement homes have been "pink ghettos," crammed with a sad sorority of widows who pass their days playing bingo, learning crafts and noting each others' decline.

Older men aren't content to play bingo. (AOA Photo)

That's changing, however, now that men are living longer - much longer - due to lifestyle changes and medical advances. The girls clubs are suddenly going co-ed, kicking social interaction into a higher gear in a way that could help seniors of both sexes live longer.

Some "senior living communities" have seen as much as a 75 percent rise in the number of men moving in just the past few years.

"We do have an upward trend in male move-ins, year to year," said Glenn Sheriff, a marketing director for Brookdale Senior Living, which hosts 52,000 elders in 35 US states. "The most significant numbers, however, are noted when looking at the overall trend from 2004 until now."

The presence of more men is likely to shake-up day-to-day life in the homes, changing activities, care procedures, staffing and even the decor of the facilities themselves.

Independent living apartments, assisted living communities, dementia care centers and nursing homes represent some of the only housing alternatives available to seniors challenged by the limitations of traditional rental housing. But they've been repulsive to many seniors who see them as "old folks homes" where mostly female residents go to live out their last days, often alone and lonely in the awkward company of strangers.

The entry of more men changes the social dynamic of such a facility, paring the loneliness, allowing elderly couples to share rooms, and even sparking a few late-autumn romances.

"We have quite a few couples here, and our Men's Club has become noticeably more popular in the last few years. In fact, our male population participates in many of our activity and outing options," said Janet Franz, executive director of Seasons, a facility in Glenview, Ill., that has seen a 75 percent upswing in the number of men since 2004. "We gain most of our residents through referrals and word of mouth."

Living Long
The rising number of men stems largely from longer lives. The Census Bureau estimates 38 percent of deaths are caused by poor diet, inactivity, smoking and drinking. Doctors have been urging patients to change the ways for years, and many have. 

Additionally, heart bypasses, angioplasties and pacemakers have helped reduce the number of heart-related deaths, and cancer treatments have cut the number of men dying from such things as prostate cancer.

Baby boomers, who turned jogging into a national obsession and made "health foods" a household word, are likely to live much longer than their parents. And with 78 million boomers just on the edge of retirement, it appears many millions of them will live much longer.  

That means boomers will stay married longer, and remain in their homes longer. But when they do need a new place to live, they'll create a surging demand for housing for both sexes.

Housing Transition
All this points to a growing economic crisis and hints that the eldercare industry may be on the verge of a rough transition.

A year in a typical nursing home runs $77,000 a year. according a recent survey, far exceeding the $58,000 that an average American has stashed in a 401(k). Assisted living centers can range from $25,000 to $60,000 a year, depending on the location, services and quality.

Clearly, cheaper housing designed around this changing demographic is needed. Whether that will come from the care industry or new alternatives created by open-thinking boomers remains to be seen. 

Either way, the presence of men and women in new social settings may even help forestall another killer - dementia.

"Research has shown social isolation as a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Kevin O'Neil, a Brookdale geriatrician. "Social engagement has now been shown to be a more potent predictor of longevity than age or medical conditions, therefore showcasing the powerful influence of relationships ... Sustaining positive relationships with others enhances health and provides a sense of camaraderie and belonging."