Thursday, July 9, 2009

Give me those old time solutions

The news hits us daily with political compromises to critical efforts: diverting stimulus money from where it will actually be most effective (e.g. from urban infrastructure to rural roads), undercutting health care reform into minimal impact, eating away at the prospect for carbon emission reduction.

All the more welcome, then, news of a positive trend. The Boston Globe (may it survive its own crisis!) reports today about 'intentional communities' providing services to the elderly to allow them to stay in their own homes even as their abilities to live fully independently wane. The specific organization profiled—Newton at Home, in my own city—has some interesting explanations, references and links on their website.

The idea is to reverse the long-time erosion of supportive community. As we baby boomers cope with the needs of aging parents--or even aging selves--we do so in a world very different from that of our grandparents. Rather than having family living together, or down the street, or across town, many of us have our siblings dispersed across the country or even the globe. While some have neighbors or religious congregations to fill some needs, that is rarely enough. The continuum of care in a single-campus-based retirement home to nursing home complex is the high-intervention (and high-cost) approach. But intentional communities such as Newton at Home resist the need for relocation/dislocation by bringing together local resources through local efforts in an intriguing reinterpretation of old supportive patterns. Volunteers build and maintain a knowledge base of available services, advice, and activities.

We need national policy to set the right conditions, but it's on the local level, in the end, that the behaviors that make change happen. Consumer decisions (and individual entrepreneurial behavior, including Newton at Home's focus on local resources) will have much to do with ending the recession. Atul Gawande's much noted recent New Yorker article pinpointed the heart of the health care dilemma in the attitude of local providers (we need more of the low-key, low-intervention approach of my late father, the no-nonsense general practitioner). And it is sobering to note that the average American household has twice the carbon footprint of a German household, which in turn has almost twice the footprint of the average Swedish household. I get those facts from another local effort, Newton Eco-Teams, which is working on a 25% reduction of household carbon emissions through simple and cost-effective community organizing.

Responsibility and community. Conservatism we can believe in.

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