An illustration of an older person with a young woman on a park bench.
Madison McVeigh/CityLab

The lives of the young and the old rarely cross in many American cities. After I moved to Austin, I used a volunteer opportunity as a way to change that.

Faye is stressed out about the craft room in her condominium. “I get very overwhelmed when I try to clean it,” she tells me when I arrive on the doorstep of her condo one hot Tuesday evening in June.

She’d submitted a request for volunteer help through Capital City Village, a nonprofit in Austin, Texas, that helps older people age in their homes and communities, and I, a volunteer, had responded.

“That’s OK, I love to organize,” I say.

“Well, I hope so,” she says, already worrying as she invites me in and sits me down on the couch. She asks me to tell her about myself. She is skeptical: Why am I spending my Tuesday evening helping a retiree I’d never met clean her apartment?

I shrug. I’m new to town. I don’t know very many people. I’m trying to get to know Austin—to understand this city beyond its carefully curated twang and charm. And to do that, I’m looking beyond my immediate contemporaries.

Although it often feels like Austin has been overrun by the tech- and taco-focused youth of America (and it has), it’s a magnet for older people, too. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Austin-Round Rock metro area has the second-fastest growing population of people older than 65 in the country, and the fastest-growing population of people between 55 and 64.

But where were all these older people? I certainly didn’t see them in my day-to-day life, working as an editor at Austin’s city magazine. When I go to events and restaurant openings, I see a lot of people that look like me—young professionals, often unbearably hip.

After seven years in Tucson, I moved to the Texas capital in December of 2017 to be closer to my sister and her family. Although I loved living a drive away from my two nieces, I struggled to build a new community for myself in Austin. I drove in crushing traffic to eat tacos from trailers, sit on patios under twinkle lights, and stand in bars watching live music. But sometimes it felt like I was performing life in Austin instead of living it. “This city sometimes seems like it’s half hype, half real,” wrote freelance writer Elizabeth Pagano in a column for Austin Monthly. I read it with relief—at least I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

One Saturday morning, as I color-coded my books in a new bookshelf—really, I do love to organize—I came across Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End*. In it, Gawande notes how invisible aging has become in contemporary American society, where the elderly are often isolated in medical institutions or nursing homes. “For most of human history, for those few people who actually survived to old age,” he writes, “elders were cared for in multigenerational systems, often with three generations living under one roof.” Multigenerational living is largely born of necessity, writes Gawande; as soon as young people have the economic means to strike out on their own, they do, leaving the previous generation to fend for itself.

That’s certainly what I did. I hadn’t lived in the same city as my parents since I was 22, the same year my last grandparent died. In Tucson, a city of snowbirds, I hadn’t noticed the generational homogeneity in my life—the fact that I wasn’t close to a single person over 60 who I wasn’t related to. But when I got to Austin and wanted to learn more about this city, I decided I needed to spend some time with people who had been here a while.

***

In 2006, Sue Hoffman, a social worker and longtime Austinite, read a story in the New York Times about Beacon Hill Village, a Boston nonprofit that help elderly residents age in their homes by connecting them to volunteers who provide services like home repair or rides to the doctor. “I thought, well, that makes sense,” she says. Hoffman’s parents had died in the 1980s, along with her in-laws. She and her husband, Mart, had long relied on a tight community of friends to pitch in as they’d raised their children. Why not formalize that community as they aged?

(Elkk Photography)

Hoffman met with a few of Beacon Hill’s founders, and a few months later she and several others had started Capital City Village to help Austinites age in their homes and communities. Today, around 60 volunteers and three part-time staff support CCV’s 115 members, who range from 58 to 99 years old (Hoffman is 72). Members pay dues—$100 to $600 a year for an individual, depending on income—which affords them access to a list of recommended service providers, from plumbers to realtors, and help from volunteers, including as many as three round-trip drives a week.     

“It’s an extra layer of support,” says Hoffman. “You may have your neighborhood, you might have your church, but this provides some things that they can’t provide. People often say, ‘Oh my kids will do that for me.’ But I’m kinda saving my kids for biggies. They’ve got their own lives. Let them come and help me when I really need it.’”

There are social gatherings almost every day of the week, some organized by the village and some by members, ranging from lectures and museum trips to book clubs and domino games. A few weeks after my volunteer orientation, I go to one of these lectures held at a downtown pub so I can write a blurb for the monthly newsletter. I listen, rapt, as a psychology professor from the University of Texas talks about how our perception of time changes as we age.

I help Faye clean out her craft room—together, we tackle the space in less than an hour. She’s so delighted she asks me if she can hug me. Then I drive Julie to the hair salon. In December, I pick up a woman named Barbara from her apartment in northeast Austin and drive her to CCV’s holiday party at a restaurant just south of downtown.

I decide to stick around for the party, feeling out of place until I meet a man named Neil who works for facilities management at the University of Texas. He tells me that he’s one of only a few people that have the code to light up the UT Tower remotely, turning it orange and white after a Longhorns win. After the recent death of George H.W. Bush, he supervised the workers who spent hours arranging the window lights that spelled out “41.” Neil shows me a picture on his phone of “Tower Girl,” the peregrine falcon that has lived in the UT tower for nearly a decade. He is delighted by her, and I by him, as I learn the hidden stories of the city that I hadn’t before had access to.

On the way home from the holiday party, the northbound side of I-35 is thick with traffic. Barbara instructs me to get off the freeway, telling me we should take city streets. She’d worked as a hospice nurse, driving all over the city to visit patients, so she knows her way around traffic. We drive down East Cesar Chavez and up Chicon to Martin Luther King Boulevard, and she talks about the landmarks along the way. “That’s where I went to work,” she says, pointing at a Hospice Austin building tucked behind a low limestone wall. “I drove this route almost every day.” I glance at the unassuming structure as we glide past—I’d never noticed it, and likely never would have. Her knowledge of Austin is granular, layered, and I am grateful for the slower route to her home, the chance to spend 20 minutes seeing this city through her eyes.

***

Considering the perspective of older residents is something Austin has prioritized since 2012, when former Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell formed a Task Force on Aging, which became the permanent Commission on Aging in 2016. “Because Austin is a youth-oriented city, the aging-friendly plan is very important, so that the older population does not in any way get shoved to the side of the road,” says Hoffman, who represented CCV on the task force.

The group ended up producing the Age-Friendly Austin Action Plan, which focuses on issues like housing, transportation, and healthcare accessall challenges for older people on fixed incomes in a booming metro facing rising rents. But the plan also emphasizes another issue that’s increasingly associated with aging in America—loneliness. “Social isolation is the number-one problem of aging,” Hoffman says.

According to a 2018 study by the AARP Foundation, one in five older Americans struggle with social isolation. Living alone doesn’t itself make you lonely (and the elderly hardly have a monopoly on loneliness), but the physical and psychological changes associated with aging—fading senses and limited mobility—tends to exacerbate the condition. “As people get more and more isolated, that increases their chance of getting a physical illness or becoming depressed or anxious,” Hoffman says. “We have tribal brains. There are very few people who are really excellent hermits.”

The action plan suggests intergenerational programming at public facilities like libraries and rec centers and educational partnerships with local universities and colleges to “provide ways for the young and old to learn from each other [and] honor what each has to offer.”

(Capital City Village)

I meet Joe at a CCV lunch one Thursday in September. I like him immediately—he suffers no small talk, instead saying things like “I’m starting to think about the finiteness of life” and asking me if I’m partnered or “doing the computer dating.”

Joe worked as a schoolteacher; he and his wife, Pam, both took early retirement when they were 55. “When you meet someone, the first thing they ask you is always, ‘What do you do?’” he says. “I used to be able to say ‘I’m a teacher, and I teach in a low socio-economic school.’ There’s my sense of self; there’s something I can take pride in.”

After retirement, he had to reconsider not only his sense of self but also how he connected with other people. “I always admired this school principal,” he says. “When she retired, people would ask her, ‘What do you do?’ She would say, ‘I paint chairs.’ She had no need to prove herself.”

For all of the growth and glitz that have come with Austin’s latest boom, this is still a town founded on a come-as-you-are weirdness, a place where people could just paint chairs. As I meet more people of all ages, I start to appreciate this easygoing openness, often on display in the quieter, unheralded corners of Austin.

Through the village, Joe and Pam started a Managing Mindfulness interest group, which meets at their home monthly to go over readings and resources, sharing challenges and successes in the pursuit of “being here now,” Joe says. “It’s so easy to be in our heads about what we just said or what just happened, instead of focusing on the present moment.” He asks for my email and a few days later I get a message inviting me to the next meeting, which is the following Tuesday morning at 10 o’clock. I write him back to let him know that I have to be at work on Tuesday mornings. He responds immediately: “So hurry up and retire, already. New adventures are always awaiting!”

I imagine being on the flipside of my life. If, at 32, I have just finished the first third of my life, what will it feel like when I am beginning the last third? I like talking to people whose major life decisions have already happened—who they’ll marry, whether or not to have kids, where they’ll live, what they’ll do there. Over the months, as I become un-partnered and start “doing the computer dating,” spending time with these more seasoned humans offers a perspective that is grounding, calming. The decisions that feel so fraught now will be remembered differently in 30 years. They remind me to take myself less seriously—to relish rather than fear all that I still don’t know.

Back when they were starting CCV, the Hoffmans met a man in their neighborhood named Stan Brooks. Brooks moved to Austin from Elgin in 1926. His father owned a furniture store on South Congress Avenue—today, the epicenter of ‘grammable Austin. “A neighbor said, ‘If you’re going to do this village thing, you have to meet Stan,’” Hoffman says. “We’ve been good friends ever since.”

At 96, Brooks still lives in his home and still drives—he just bought a new Cadillac, so he can drive other CCV members around in style. “He’s a hilarious guy,” she says. “Of course, when you get close to older people, you’re going to lose them. We’ve lost a few really neat people. But you know what? Better to have known them.”

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Atul Gawande’s last name.

This piece is part of our series, "Finding Community." We want to hear your stories. Have you found space in your city to meet people you might not otherwise encounter? Is there something that binds your community, including the most vulnerable? What in these communities has delighted, dismayed, and transformed you? Send your idea to pitches@citylab.com.

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