Revisiting Caresharing in the Context of Changes in a Florida Retirement Community

Eleanor Krassen Covan, Ph.D.

Abstract

In this paper I revisit the basic social process of
caresharing whereby people engage in personal and
communal strategies to maximize their pleasure and
minimize their losses. I originally discovered caresharing in
the context of Hollywood Falls, a Florida retirement
community that provided no formal supportive services for
its aging residents (Covan, 1998). There, hiding frailty was
the most obvious caresharing strategy. In this community
which has since become more diverse in terms of ethnicity
and age, hiding frailty is no longer practical among the
oldest residents. It has been surpassed by bolstering
strength, a process which involves exposing need,
expanding the caresharing network, stifling crises, and
staking competence claims. In consequence of bolstering
strength, the oldest residents are able to diminish the costs
of help while augmenting opportunities for personal
autonomy, thereby extending their period of residence
within their ‘independent’ living community.

Introduction

Caresharing is a basic social process, originally
discovered in the context of Hollywood Falls, a Florida
retirement community (Covan, 1998). The process
involves a combination of personal and communal
strategies employed by residents of the community in order
to maximize their pleasure and minimize their losses.
Caresharing is no doubt an enduring universal social
process, occurring in many contexts in which people decide
to help one another in order to improve their lives.
Caresharing is initiated from the ‘ground-up’by the people
who themselves need some assistance and by the people
who feel they can provide it, as opposed to services that
are imposed by some larger more formal system of care,
governed by codified regulations. The gerontological
literature is replete with articles on “informal caregiving
networks,” that could more appropriately be described in
terms of their caresharing properties if researchers were to
analyze the conditions in which caresharing alliances
developed.

Rousseau (1762) believed that citizens exchange
natural liberty for something better, such as moral liberty.
He posited that individuals would subject themselves to the
moral order of formal communities for the common good of
citizenry. In contrast, caresharing develops as a much
looser network of voluntary exchanges such that surrender
is inherently revocable, negotiable, and dependent on
fluctuations in individual, communal, and environmental
resources. Caresharing arrangements are selfserving,
expandable, yet retractable social alliances, generated by
functional needs as recognized by individuals. People elect
to help one another because life is easier and thus ‘better’
this way. To the extent that caresharers perceive
‘surrender,’ it is surrender in the face of needs which they
cannot meet on their own. They also understand that
surrender may require reciprocating when others need help
and that the help they receive may be provided by others
who are reciprocating for services received in the past.
When surrender occurs, it may be revocable when the need
is no longer present or when the costs of providing or of
receiving help are too great. Thus, caresharing alliances
may involve individual considerations that social
economists would recognize in terms of cost/benefit
analyses.

Of course, we are social beings and thus the
endurance of caresharing alliances is dependent to some
extent on the emotional and social bonds of kinship and or
friendship. Within Hollywood Falls, such alliances in the
past have been fostered by neighborliness, involving
mutual respect for autonomy, reciprocity, and desperate
personal struggles to remain in an independent living
community. That caresharing benefited the Hollywood Falls
community as a whole occurred in consequence rather than
in motivation. As the residential population of Hollywood
Falls has been changing, caresharing arrangements are
being reconfigured. Caresharing continues, but alliances
extend well beyond the Hollywood Falls community that
may weaken community identity.

Note that informal caregiving networks and caresharing
alliances
can occur both in the presence and in the absence
of formal services. In the context of Hollywood Falls,
however, at a time when both the mean and modal age of
residents was 78, caresharing emerged as a core
processional variable that explained most of the social
interaction within the community in the absence of formal
services. The most obvious caresharing strategy was then
hiding frailty. Gerontologists wondered, with regard to
residential covenants and condominium policies, whether
hiding frailty was a simple response to fear of being
removed from the community. The community was
planned with the constraints of all independent living
communities. By design, residents were to be denied the
privilege of living there when they were no longer able to
live independently. Residents told me repeatedly,
however, that avoiding frailty helped them to maintain a
positive attitude about getting older. Hiding frailty
encouraged them to participate in stamina displays which
they explained allowed them to enjoy good health in
association with a healthy lifestyle. Hiding frailty meant
engaging in activities that they enjoyed and thus the
activities and the positive attitudes were ends in
themselves.

Today the Hollywood Falls community has become
more diverse in terms of ethnicity and age. Hiding frailty is
no longer practical among many of the oldest residents. It
has been supplemented and surpassed by bolstering
strength, a process which involves exposing communal and
individual needs, expanding the caresharing network,
stifling crises associated with needs, and staking
competence claims in the context of diminished communal
and individual capacity. In consequence of bolstering
strength
, the community may remain viable while the
oldest residents are able to moderate the social, emotional
and financial costs of seeking help. Bolstering strength is
fostered by the value of cooperative independence
(Maxwell & Maxwell, 1983), such that residents attempt to
assure that each may remain as independent as possible.
Opportunities for personal autonomy are augmented,
thereby extending the personal period of residence for the
oldest adults within their ‘independent’ living community.
In this article, I revisit the Hollywood Falls system of
caresharing, in light of current expressions of bolstering
strength.

Methods

It is important to note again that Hollywood Falls is a
pseudonym in my attempt to protect the privacy of the
community and its residents. As the daughter of a resident,
it has been relatively easy for me to continue my visits to
this particular retirement community. My ninetyyearold
father and his wife are delighted by my repeated
‘participant observations.’ I have been going there for more
than twenty years, allowing me the opportunity to witness
caresharing firsthand. My community connections are both
personal and professional. On those occasions when I have
entered the community primarily as a sociologist, my
university’s institutional review board has reviewed my
research design. My most recent inquiries as well as those
in the past research have been guided by and grounded in
theoretical sampling. The research design continues to
include observation, recording field notes, and the constant
comparative method of grounded theory data analysis.
Each time that I have visited Hollywood Falls I have
interviewed a group of surviving residents as well as some
new to the community. I have used a translator to make
sure that I understood the viewpoints of Hispanic residents
who have recently moved to the community. When I want
to know what has happened in the community during my
extended absences, in addition to asking people, I review
minutes of meetings of the condo and recreational boards
of directors, visit senior centers and nearby long-term care
facilities, take residents shopping, accompany them on
visits to health care providers, and visit a few residents at
their places of employment. I have also interviewed family
members of residents, especially when they have been
involved in decisions concerning whether or not residents
will remain in the Hollywood Falls community. My
participant observations come from having become part of
the expanded caresharing network, both as a daughter
summoned to bolster the strength of her aging parents and
as a professional invited to provide advice about longterm
care. Although occasionally I have been consulted for my
special knowledge, regardless of whom I have interviewed,
my informants indicate willingness to talk with me because
they are impressed with my status as a “loving daughter of
a resident” rather than because my father has told them
about my stellar academic credentials.

The Bolstering Strength Process

Bolstering strength is a process of building support that
can broaden the viability of an independent living
retirement community while it extends the period of
independent living for the oldest residents who live there.
Bolstering strategies include exposing needs, expanding
caresharing networks, stifling crises and staking
competence claims. Each strategy may be employed by
the community in its entirety as a caresharing unit, by
smaller groups of residents in caresharing alliances, or by
solo residents who attempt to manage on their own. At the
time my first caresharing article was published in 1998, my
sociological eye had already observed that the country club
atmosphere of Hollywood Falls was not as ideal as
described by marketers or by many of the residents who
lived there. Caresharing networks didn’t always succeed in
the sense that many residents had died before their 80 th
birthdays and spousal alliances were failing when both
partners were ill at the same time. Many residents required
care that the community simply could not provide. They
were consequently forced to choose to move to an assisted
living facility or to let their adult children “take them
away.” Caresharing endures as a basic social process in
Hollywood Falls; however, bolstering strength rather than
hiding frailty now seems to explain most of the social
interaction within the community, especially among its
eldest residents.

Exposing Selective Problems

The problems of aging communities and very old
individuals tend to be exposed whether or not people talk
about them deliberately. If the problem is great enough in
the sense that it impacts most people, others will simply
notice that something is wrong. It thus became obvious to
residents that at least two problems existed; the first was
related to the real estate market and the second related to
the declining health status of older residents. A third
emergent problem was that of accommodating the
caresharing needs of an increasingly diverse community of
seniors.

When the viability of the community was threatened by
the crash of the real estate market and the health of many
of the original residents in Hollywood Falls deteriorated,
those who lived in Hollywood Falls recognized the
problems. Community problems and individual troubles
happened to co-occur. In 1992, for example, I witnessed
that the entire community of Hollywood Falls seemed
threatened when the supply of condominium units there
and in similar retirement communities far exceeded the
demand. Individuals planning to move to an assisted living
community could not sell their condos. That many people
were trying to sell at the same time contributed to the
problem. Units remained vacant for months on end.
Monthly association fees were in arrears, reducing
condominium budgets for recreation and maintenance. At
that time, a retiree who sought to purchase a condominium
unit could buy a new one a few miles away from Hollywood
Falls and pay 30% less than the original residents of
Hollywood Falls had paid 15 years earlier. When the
community was developed in 1979, 85% of the original
residents indicated that they were Jews of east European
descent. Some had even noted on their applications that
they chose Hollywood Falls because they wanted to live in a
Jewish community. Those marketing the community
initially saw that it was in their best interest to let “word of
mouth” be their greatest marketing tool and they
supplemented this sales strategy by placing advertisements
in weekly ‘Jewish’ newspapers. Italian Americans were the
next largest group of residents with a sprinkling of people
of other backgrounds. There were no African Americans,
and no Hispanics, and relatively few white AngloSaxon
Protestants. When a Jewish resident died, family heirs
tended to sell the units to strangers for whatever price was
quickly obtainable in order to settle the estate of the
deceased. As units “turned over,” a committee of
Hollywood Falls residents screened potential owners to
make sure that they understood condominium life and so
that the newcomers would be prepared to follow
condominium policies, but the committee offered little help
in the actual sales process. Few heirs were over the age of
55 thus their parent’s property was not personally valuable
to them as they were not permitted by condo doctrine to
live there or to use the units as vacation homes. By 1992,
although the price of Hollywood Falls units dropped
precipitously, Jewish and Italian retirees from the mid-West
and mid-Atlantic region were no longer buying them. A
new marketing strategy was required as it was impossible
to revitalize the community with a younger, but otherwise
similar group of retirees.

With 1/4 of the residents approaching their 90 th
birthdays and the modal age of newcomers is in their mid-
fifties or early sixties, health problems are noticed by
younger residents even when the older residents try to
cover up their frailty. Today the oldest group of residents
refers to themselves as senior seniors. Although the
strategy of hiding their own frailty is attempted by the
healthiest among them, it is impossible for them to ignore
the frailty of others. Exposing frailty may actually initiate
the process of bolstering strength for senior seniors, by
signaling to them a need for support. The sirens, canes,
wheel chairs and walkers of others are simply too plentiful
for them to overlook. Most of their friends and neighbors
have died. Three fourths of their age mates have left the
community as a consequence of death, illness, or disability,
ten percent of those leaving during the past six months.
The few who remain are proud of their own stamina, yet
some of them suffer from reactive depression as a
consequence of multiple losses and self reflection on newly
exposed frailty. As Lucy, age 89, notes,

I used to think that ninety was just a
number. Now I wish that I would go to bed
and not wake up. I can’t sleep, I can’t poop,
I can’t walk and I can’t think. I am old. You
can live too long, you know. I don’t see
good [sec] for me in the future. I try to go
places and do things for myself, but I need
this contraption [a walker on wheels] to get
around and I fall sometimes. My best friends
have died. Someone has to take me
shopping all the time. I need help, but I
have to arrange for that myself and good
help is hard to get. I don’t want to go to
‘assisted living’ and I definitely don’t want to
be a burden on my daughter who has her
own arthritis and other problems. I visit my
neighbor each day because she is alone and
she’s my therapist.

Lucy and her neighbor are able to bolster each other’s
strength by commiserating about their problems. Many of
the oldest residents repeatedly talk about their friends who
have died or gone to assisted living, but some residents are
more willing to listen than are others. Dottie wonders how
long she can survive with “the Angel of Death” hovering all
around her, but her husband prefers to talk about pleasant
things and not dwell on the death of their friends. Ollie
told me in the presence of his wife, “Ninety is a gift from
God and I can’t take care of the gift by talking about
death.” He also told me privately, “When she talks like
that, I just turn this contraption [his hearing aid] down and
I don’t listen.” The number of couple alliances has
decreased as a consequence of both variations in tolerance
for exposing problems as well as in consequence of attrition
by death of marriage partners. As the rate of widowhood
has increased, many senior seniors who had previously
engaged in couple alliances now reach out to larger groups
of those similarly widowed to provide caresharing support
rather than to depend on themselves alone or on one other
individual. Some flaunt their need for companionship,
thereby attracting others to their caresharing networks. At
the very least, exposing their needs brings companionship
and the occasional camaraderie that accompanies
recognition of shared circumstances. At best, exposing
needs bolsters strength, and the creation new caresharing
arrangements.

Board members were the first to expose needs that
have occurred as the consequence of diversity. They have
tried to engage the entire community in their role as
facilitators of recreational caresharing. They indicate that
when they now try to hold dances now, no one shows up.
“The young people aren’t interested and the old ones can’t
dance anymore.” The minutes of the recreational board
noted that younger people do not even pick up their ID
cards that would allow them to participate in events. It is
obvious that they do not use the swimming pool. A
building captain told me, “The new people are very
friendly… but the only activity they may show up for is
perhaps a community picnic.” One resident told me,

It’s even hard to get a card game. So many of
those who used to play have died and the rest of
them try to cheat or maybe it is that they can’t
remember the rules except they know they’re
supposed to win… You have to be able to think.
The younger guys do not want to play.

Could the younger residents be hiding frailty by
avoiding recreational interaction with their elders? This is
possible, but the most obvious reason for not interacting
with older residents is that the younger residents perceive
that they have little time to interact with them or that they
have little in common with them. Unlike the original
residents who had moved to Florida as retirees, the newer
residents enter the community while still gainfully
employed. For many of them therefore, Hollywood Falls is
a bedroom community, more so than a community
caresharing system. Younger residents are also less likely
to be married when they enter the community, but unlike
the older residents who are single because of widowhood,
the younger people are more likely to be recently divorced.
Although there have been a few May/December romances,
in most instances younger residents do not see the elders
as potential mates.

My interpretation of the problem is that in addition to
the language barrier, there are misunderstandings between
ethnic groups because the original group of residents and
the newest group of residents are comfortable with
different kinds of caresharing arrangements. Where the
original residents continue to rely on neighbors and
professionals when they need help, the newer group of
Hispanic elders depends on family caresharing groups. I
also suspect that there is also some envy of the Hispanic
residents who have solid familial relationships. The recent
real-estate boom has allowed Hispanics to buy apartments
in Hollywood Falls at a very inexpensive rate and to use the
equity in their apartments to finance units for their
relatives. Ethnic diversity is the basis for much of the
variation in how caresharing is evolving in the Hollywood
Falls community. In the past caresharing was dominated by
spouses and neighborly couple alliances within the
community. The relationships were nurtured in the absence
of local relatives. The newer familial caresharing alliances
are commonly ethnically exclusive. Although they are
restricted to members of one’s extended family, kinbased
caresharing networks expand beyond the Hollywood Falls
community.

Many of the new residents are obviously culturally
dissimilar from the original group at Hollywood Falls in
terms of ethnicity and other demographic markers. While
some shared a history of mid-Atlantic residence in their
youth, other newcomers come from the Southern region of
the United States. While the original Jewish residents
created charitable groups to raise money for Jewish
organizations and they encouraged entertainers familiar
with ‘Jewish humor,’ Protestant newcomers and Hispanics
have had little interest in these charities or entertainers.
Also, the Jews tended to vote and register as Democrats
while the Protestant residents tend to vote and register as
Republicans, causing some friction especially following the
2000 presidential election.

Political positions of leadership within the Hollywood
Falls community have for years been in distributed in
relationship to community seniority and to a limited extent,
in response to ethnic distribution. Until very recently most
of these positions have been dominated by the oldest
Jewish and Italian residents. While board members
complain that there is no interest among younger residents
to replace them, they have only recently tried to recruit
Hispanic members to these committees. Board members
thought they were planning activities that would be of
interest to everyone in the community, but community
caresharing of course requires representation of diverse
groups of residents, in managing community affairs.

Expanding the Caresharing Network

Expanding the caresharing network is both a
communal process and a process involving individual
efforts. With regard to the Hollywood Falls community in
2006, less than one quarter of the original residents
remains there, yet there are relatively few vacant units. A
new marketing plan was developed by the condo board of
directors to replenish the community. The plan involved
expanding marketing efforts to the community by
diversifying advertising campaigns so they would reflect
the changing population in the region of southeastern
Florida. In the past ten years many “Protestants from up
North,” a few African Americans and a large Hispanic
immigrant population moved to southeastern Florida, with
some taking up residence in Hollywood Falls. In Broward
County, where Hollywood Falls is located, a document
authored by the County Planning Division and the SunSentinel
newspaper reports that the Hispanic population is
quite diverse including persons of Puerto Rican, Columbian,
Dominican, and Mexican descent, noting that demographic
shifts present challenges for Broward County (2002).
Twenty-one percent of the residents in Broward County are
Hispanic and this percentage is expected to grow during
the next ten years. Some of persons within this population
who are over the age of 55 have taken advantage of the
falling price of condominiums in independent retirement
communities, purchasing units in Hollywood Falls. Ten
percent of all units in Hollywood Falls are now owned by
Hispanics, all of which were purchased during the past
eight years.

The successful marketing plan is now fostered by
private realtors who know best how to reach potential
buyers. Those who have replaced the former residents
differ from the original group on several dimensions, the
most obvious of which are age and ethnicity. Although
expanding the community by marketing to diverse ethnic
groups helped economically, ethnic diversity within the
community initially led to caresharing barriers and to
exposing new problems. A Colombian woman told me with
the help of a translator, “I’m anxious to be accepted. I like
to visit Sophie, but it is hard for us to talk. We’re both
widows… but it is hard to be friends. I spend most of my
time at the senior center because there are more people I
can talk to there.” Spending time outside of Hollywood
Falls, in consequence further expands the caresharing
network as not all needs for friendship can be met by the
residents within the community. While some residents
claim to welcome the opportunity to meet others whose
backgrounds differ from their own, it is clear that for others
diversity is uncomfortable. A non-Hispanic resident told
me, “I find it exciting to meet people who are different… I
like everybody. ” As she continued talking with me,
however, it became clear that there were some
fundamental problems because of her perceptions. She
said, for example, “The major problem is that in some
instances two or three apartments in the same building are
owned by Hispanics in the same family and they speak to
no one other than their own relatives.” The condo and
recreational boards have begun to change their planning
strategies in order to accommodate diversity within the
population, but change is difficult for some of the residents
who have never before lived in an ethnically diverse
community.

Health problems and or widowhood provide the
impetus for many individuals to expand their caresharing
networks. Expanded networks may include senior centers,
adult day care providers, county nutrition programs, faith
communities, kin care, and university students, but the
most common expanded networks include home health
care agency personnel.

One dimension of caresharing arrangements is
cooperative independence a concept I first used in my
study of Alaskan natives in a Tlingit village (Maxwell &
Maxwell, 1983). Cooperative independence is a value that
guides assistance such that people cooperate to accomplish
what is needed with a minimal amount of intrusion.
Cooperative independence can include a network of
caresharers who cooperate to maintain as much
independence as is feasible by partnering with larger
caresharing units. By joining together voluntarily,
caresharers can accomplish more than they otherwise could
accomplish in smaller caresharing units. It seems that
initially, caresharing alliances are built on the smallest
number of caresharers who can meet one’s needs. People
reach out to expand the network of caresharers when they
can’t otherwise meet their needs. Cooperative
independence is desirable because caresharing in its
absence can potentially rob one of one’s freedom as help
requires greater reciprocity than does cooperation.
Cooperative caresharing networks are expandable in times
of need, and retractable, when needs no longer exist.

Caresharing alliances between residents of Hollywood
Falls and their home health care assistants illustrate the
mutual benefits of cooperative independence for two
seemingly disparate groups. Most of the aides to senior
seniors are younger Hispanics who are among the recent
arrivals to Broward County. A portion of them are
undocumented immigrants. The older adults who rely on
their aides are not about to complain about their aide’s
immigration status. The aides are able to improve their
English language skills as they work with senior seniors.
Some whose health care credentials from their countries of
origin are not accepted in the United States earn enough
money to return to school in Florida. The seniors benefit
from their arrangements with paid assistants who help
them to maintain both some degree of physical
independence and a great deal of personal autonomy as
they can hire and fire the home assistants at will.

For the oldest remaining residents, bolstering strength
often depends on expanding their caresharing networks to
include a greater reliance on relatives. Although senior
seniors guard their independence, adult children arrive on
the scene in times of medical crises. It is rather common,
particularly for widowed mothers to have named one of
their offspring as their ‘health care power of attorney.” For
those whose crises are time limited and who are fortunate
to have younger relatives nearby, bolstering strength
through kin care is quite effective. Family members consult
with health professionals, complete paperwork on medical
history and spend hours negotiating with insurance agents
and in processing claim forms. The more debilitating and
more time consuming the help, the greater the likelihood
that relatives will not be able to bolster sufficient strength
to accomplish all that appears to be necessary.

Residential caresharing networks in Hollywood Falls
have now expanded to include non-human residents.
Although no pets are permitted as per condominium
covenants, several of the oldest residents have formed
emotional caresharing alliances with birds, fish, and cats.
Building captains are allied with pet owners in the sense
that they know the pets exist. They tend to ignore the
regulations that were enforced in the past if their building
is odor-free and quiet. One captain told me, “Mario loves
his cats. He misses his wife and the cats keep him
company. I’m not going to do anything about his two cats
if no one complains.” Dogs, he said, are strictly forbidden
because “they bark and shit and owners don’t clean up
after them.”

Stifling Crises

Diversifying the community could have precipitated a
crisis, but visionary members of the board were astute
enough to stifle emerging problems. Although some
xenophobic residents expressed strong objections, the
condominium executive committee recently appointed a
Hispanic female to the condominium board of directors. Her
first recommendation was that another Hispanic resident be
appointed to serve on the resident screening committee,
noting, “It is difficult when they don’t speak English. We
ask them to come to the screening with a family member
who can translate for them. We used to allow professional
realtors to help them, but some people were taken
advantage of by professionals who only wanted to sell
them an apartment. The Spanish people will be good
residents when they know the community expectations.”
After an Hispanic resident was appointed to the screening
committee, screening committee minutes reflected that all
members of the committee now share the belief that family
members with proficiency in English can be trusted to tell
future residents the truth about the Hollywood Falls.
Inviting family members to screenings is now commonplace
and a communication crisis has been stifled.

Diversity is now reflected on the recreation committee,
as well. The new committee has organized events that
have been popular among the in the multi-ethnic
community such as a recent Super Bowl Party. They also
have organized several segregated recreational groups so
that each ‘subculture’ can do the kinds of things they
enjoy. It is most heartening that although tension exists
as a consequence of diversity, caresharing arrangements
have also emerged that cross age and ethnic groups.
Individual caresharing alliances have expanded within the
community bolstering the strength of the community as a
whole and particularly that of its eldest residents. Some of
these caresharing interactions are now quite formal
however, involving strictly business transactions. A resident
may charge $10 to take another resident shopping or $25
to take someone to the airport. A person without
transportation is willing to pay for these services and even
more if the transportation is available at the time they
want to go somewhere. A senior senior who no longer
drives finds such transportation essential. With
transportation, many such seniors are able to get their own
groceries, prepare their own meals, living much as they
have done in the past. The oldest residents have paid
younger ones for housekeeping services and home health
care, without regard to the paid caregiver’s ethnic
background. Bilingual residents have been paid to translate
between Spanish and English at condo meetings. The
income appears to be the motivation for the providers of
such caresharing services.

Less formal intergenerational and interethnic
caresharing arrangements also bolster strength. Several of
these arrangements involve the use of technology. Ten
years ago almost no one in Hollywood Falls had a personal
computer. Today there is a PC in most of the Hollywood
Falls units that are owned by residents in who are younger
than 70. Rarely will an older resident ask for such help, but
occasionally a younger person hearing about an elder’s
diagnosis will search for medical or pharmaceutical
information for an older neighbor, or he or she will send a
message to an out of town family member in behalf of the
neighbor to report on a resident’s situation. Cell phones are
also more common among the younger residents. During
Hurricane Wilma, when land lines were out of service,
residents with cell phones were able to call for help and to
inform the out of town kin folks of their elder neighbors
that they were okay.

Other caresharing arrangements that bolster strength
are concerned with preparing food. A retired Italian
widower in his nineties has shopped and prepared meals
for several of his neighbors because it is still something he
does well. This is particularly impressive in that although
he cooks pasta for himself, he routinely prepares a
traditional Shabbos meal for his Jewish friends, making
chopped liver, gedempte chicken and chicken soup.
Friendships and even a few marriages have crossed ethnic
lines. Invitations are now being extended to ‘ethnic
strangers’ who attend funerals, birthday and Hollywood
fests. These celebrations of life have helped neighbors to
become more familiar with another group’s food and
rituals. At some recreational events where residents choose
seating arrangements, and bring their own refreshments,
diverse groupings can now be noticed.

Perhaps most important, is that some residents have
begun to respect others for what they can contribute. As
one walks about the community, one hears older residents
providing solicited and unsolicited advice to newcomers,
and notices that they are also listening to what the younger
ones have to say. Common discussions across age groups
and ethnic groups concern the future of Social Security,
assisted living facilities, reviews of medical providers,
insurance plans, and how to cope with frailty.

An expanded caresharing network allows residents to
stifle many crises. One might have predicted that
Hollywood Falls residents would be in despair following
Hurricane Wilma. Although the old people were without
electricity, phone lines, and running water for several days
and many downed trees blocked the road leading in an out
of their condominium community, the atmosphere in the
community closely resembled an interethnic fiesta.
Residents with cell phones informed those outside the
community of what was happening and those in the
community were delighted by the experience of getting to
know one another. They collectively prepared meals on
outdoor hibachis, entertained one another with impromptu
sing-alongs and card games, the strongest residents
helping the weakest to endure the crisis.

Staking Competence Claims

In the presence of exposed limitations, senior seniors
employ a familiar strategy to stake claims of competency.
They engage in presentational stamina displays to
demonstrate to others that they are “okay.” Although they
admit that their caresharing networks have increased by
necessity, they still engage in stamina displays. The old
board members note that they are still competent to make
the right decisions, citing their recent efforts to recruit
younger members to the board. On a more individual basis,
Sophie whose husband who had Alzheimer’s disease died
about two years ago, brags about her stamina, proudly
noting, “I can’t do a lot of things any more, but I can still
play mahjong, walk to the clubhouse and I can drive a car

… I can get help when I need it, but I don’t have to depend
on anyone.” Once in the presence of others, residents
like Sophie stake claims of competence by constructing
story lines that minimize disabling conditions, describing
them as time limited, inconvenient, but not so bad as to
destroy their independence. Recovering from an illness or
injury, residents are cheered when they simply “show up’
at a recreational event. Canes and walkers which had been
symbols of frailty are reinterpreted as enabling devices.

The healthiest of the oldest residents stakes a claim to
competence by serving on the board of a charitable
organization. He and his wife encourage others to
participate in the social activities of that organization. For
others, the managing self is still the preferred caresharing
arrangement for those staking a claim to competence. The
residents claim to rely on me/myself for help, yet while in
the past they rarely discussed their limitations, now their
frailty is exposed. They often speak about their difficulties
as they boast of their ability to manage on their own
without help. Some, aware that bolstering strength has its
limitations, are relocating as anticipated to assisted living
communities. Others continue to boast with confidence up
until the day that they physically collapse or die.

Caresharing Revisited

In Florida in the 1970s, entrepreneurs recognized
money to be made by developing retirement communities.
Today’s entrepreneurs, see the same avenue toward wealth
just about everywhere in the United States. Communities
are being designed for aging baby boomers that are similar
to those built a generation earlier. Like the Florida
communities of an earlier generation, each of these
housing communities are being marketed for the most part
to culturally homogeneous, healthy, independent
populations without regard to infirmities that will surely
occur in the future, or with regard to the potential for
ethnic diversity. Residents of new communities like their
predecessors initially hide frailty, perform stamina displays,
and make informal alliances to share the care necessary to
maintain an independent lifestyle. When they can no longer
hide their frailty, they still cooperate to maintain as much
independence as is possible. There is nothing necessarily
troubling with this design if everyone involved anticipates
future infirmity within the community and that those
residents will need help to bolster strength in order to live
there. It is inevitable that residents will need other living
arrangements if the community makes no provision for
future supportive services. Stamina displays and other
efforts to hide frailty have positive consequences for many
in late middle age or young elderhood. The most resilient
senior seniors successfully use stamina displays to bolster
strength as they age in place. The consequences, however,
could eventually become dire for the frailest older
adults. Reminiscent of the abominable mental institutions
of an earlier era, nursing homes can be dreadful places to
exist for residents and the staff employed to care for them.
No one wants to spend time in a place where the residents
experience high mortality rates, staff turnover rates are
high and personal relationships between residents and paid
caregivers are discouraged. Although care of the frail
elderly is needed, such care should be designed with
emotional caresharing in mind in order to bolster strength
for everyone involved. As long as one’s own frailty is not
anticipated, subsequent living arrangements for the once
independent but now frail elders, will suffer, and few will
want to care for them.

Caresharing is no doubt an enduring basic social
process that exists in any naturally occurring human
community. Caresharing strategies will vary however with
the demographic characteristics of residents and by the
context in which community members interact. While
intergenerational and interethnic relationships emerge,
diversity may initially present barriers to caresharing.
Hiding frailty was an effective caresharing strategy in
Hollywood Falls eight years ago, when most community
residents were vigorous septuagenarians and the oldest
residents were in their eighties. Today it is no longer
effective among the surviving ninety year olds. Most of
these bolster strength until they must consider the
undesirable housing options that are available to them.

Author

Eleanor Krassen Covan, Ph.D.

Director of Gerontology and Professor of Sociology
Department of Health and Applied Human Sciences
University of North Carolina at Wilmington
601 South College Road
Wilmington, NC 284035625
(910) 383 0540 (voice)
(910) 9627906 (fax)
Email: covane@uncw.edu

References

Broward County Planning Services Division & SunSentinel
(2002). Broward County – Who are We? Examining
What Makes us Unique. December 4, 2002, 116.

Covan, Eleanor Krassen (1998). Caresharing: Hiding
Frailty in a Florida Retirement Community. Health
Care for Women International, 19, 423439.

Maxwell, R. J. and E. Krassen Maxwell (1983). Cooperative
Independence Among the Tlingit Elderly. Human
Organization, 42, 178-180.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1762) The Social Contract or
Principles of Political Right Translated by G. D. H.
Cole, public domain, rendered into HTML and text by
Jon Roland of the Constitution Society.

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