Four generations of the King family of Henrico County (Photo by Jay Paul)
My grandmother — at 91 — finally decided to sell her house in Buffalo, New York’s East Side and move to Richmond in 2007. She had been in her home more than 60 years, in a neighborhood where she could walk to the market and to her church for activities, and ride the bus if needed.
Her timing was perfect. My parents, who live in Chesterfield, were transitioning to a one-story house, complete with a bedroom and sitting area for a future “someone.”
Soon after my grandmother moved in, I visited and got the grand tour of her bedroom, complete with drapes my mom had made from her prized embroidered living-room curtains — an acquired taste, to say the least. Off-handedly I mentioned the new TV on which she could watch her shows any time she wanted. In return, I got pursed lips, crossed arms and a change of topic. Same thing happened with my mom and dad.
About a week later, my mom called. That morning, my grandmother said that she didn't want the TV. What we were slow to realize is that TV represented the “unwelcome mat.” To her, it meant that we didn’t ever want her in the family room, which wasn’t the case at all, but that’s the message it sent. She, of course, wanted to be included. And she was, for almost five years, until she passed away on the morning of her 96th birthday.
That sense of belonging is crucial, especially as people age, and the Richmond region, particularly in the next 15 years, desperately needs to find ways to foster it, says E. Ayn Welleford, a VCU gerontologist and co-leader of the Greater Richmond Age Wave Coalition. To Welleford, that inclusive embrace of those who are aging means having an easy-to-use transportation network; it means changing our language about aging; and it means more housing and care options. “We need to flip the narrative about family and community care across the lifespan to one about solidarity and joy,” she says.
This Tuesday, Welleford will be part of The Valentine’s Community Conversation on “family” — how we as Richmond residents define it, what family looks like through census data and how nontraditional family structures are on the rise. “Society is built on the myth of independence,” Wellford says. “It isn’t.”
Here are some stunning facts: By 2030, the number of people in our region age 65 and over will double, and those age 85 and over will more than triple. By 2035, for the first time in history, the Richmond region will be home to more adults over 60 than school-aged children.
And multigenerational family living — defined as a household that includes two or more adult generations, or one that includes grandparents and grandchildren — is growing, too. A record 60.6 million Americans, or 19 percent of the population, lived in multigenerational households in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. A growing racial and ethnic diversity in the U.S. explains some of that rise.
Riguey King’s family is one of those Henrico households. King, 54, has three generations living under her roof at the moment, and baby Calvin — representing the fourth generation — comes to visit often.
King’s parents, Beatrice, 74, and Tito, 78, had retired to Ecuador but moved in with King during her father’s cancer treatment in May 2015 and stayed through that fall. “Being with my dad every day during his treatment, whether just to say hello in the morning or being able to catch up at the end of the day, meant everything to me,” King says.
Her mother returned again this past fall because King’s daughter Angela asked that Beatrice be the full-time caregiver for her newborn, Calvin — a full-circle moment because Beatrice was Angela’s full-time caregiver when she was a baby.
“Culturally from the Latino perspective, family togetherness is very ingrained,” King says. “My husband matches that feeling. He’s been tremendously supportive of my family’s needs. When my daughter made the decision to ask my mother, he didn’t blink.”
King’s mother doesn’t drive, but luckily it hasn’t been an issue because she just drives her mom every day to her daughter’s house, which is only 2 miles away. And while King’s mother will return to Ecuador in June, this past year’s living arrangements have gotten the entire family thinking and talking about the future.
“We have talked. I think [my parents] would want their own space. Should they need more assistance, they would live with us, it would go without saying,” King says. “And I’ll be better prepared for that scenario, having gone through it with my mother-in-law.”
In 2004, King’s mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. While her family provided respite care as much as they could, the one thing King wished they did as a family was seek out help and resources a little earlier. “As much love and good will as there is with family members, you still need outside help, and it’s OK to get help,” King says. “We should have looked at some kind of companion for my mother-in-law earlier on to help my father-in-law.”
Through her experiences with her parents and her in-laws, King says that as a region, we need to work harder to educate people on getting prepared for getting older and to advocate for what is needed. “As you get older, many of those discussions about care, about power of attorney, they just don’t take place.”
VCU’s Welleford and volunteers with the Age Wave coalition are keeping those kinds of discussions at the forefront in the region and working on ways to make Richmond a great place to age.
“To me, aging is synonymous with living,” Welleford says. “But we are unfamiliar with how to adjust to this blessing of longevity, and our communities have not kept up with this. Housing is inadequate, just as is transportation.”
“Exciting things are nibbling around the edges,” Welleford says. Just as the No Wrong Door project, a virtual, statewide network of shared resources, was designed to streamline access to long-term care services, the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission and Senior Connections are now working on a similar regional network for transportation options for older adults.
Says Welleford, “Transportation is all about keeping our community engaged, livable, stable and well.”
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