We accept, without thinking much about it, that some housing will be set apart and restricted to people over the age of 55. Indeed, the entire senior living industry is founded on this deliberate policy of age segregation. We also know that the number of older Americans is large and growing larger every year. Everyone, including The National Investment Center (NIC) for Seniors Housing & Care, has expected the industry to grow in step with the aging of the Boomers. And yet, the data tells another story.
The occupancy rate for seniors housing across the United States continued to decline in the second quarter of 2018, NIC reported, trending downward over the past 10 quarters—only two-quarters short of its 12-quarter downturn during the Great Recession. Occupancy rates for independent living assisted living and nursing care were all down. Assisted living continued its decline and was the lowest since NIC began to report the data in late 2005.
The golden future of Senior Housing isn’t what it used to be, and people are starting to ask why.
The field of physics holds an important lesson for us all. When we look closely enough we discover that “everything is connected.” Writing about these connections, and the “Chaos Theory” that underpins them, Neil Gaiman notes that “a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle, and subsequently a storm ravages half of Europe.” Those of us working in the field of aging services have to understand that seemingly small decisions can ultimately change the reality of aging for large numbers of people.
I think we need to look at the corrosive role that ageism is playing in our field. Ashton Applewhite has been digging into the many ways that our culture’s negative views of aging impact people of all ages. In her most recent book, “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism,” she notes that “age denial keeps many people from making lifestyle choices that pay off in the long run.”
All choices link to something bigger—everything is connected—and we are, arguably, witnessing declining senior living census figures (in the context of rising demand) as a much delayed, very profound, and wholly unintended consequence of founding an industry based on the segregation of older people according to their age and (dis)abilities and creating uber conveniences so they never have to leave the compound, ahem, I mean community.
A butterfly flaps its wings…
Does this sound familiar as marketing and sales strategy? “At Happy Days Senior Living, we have it all under one roof. For $8K per month residents have access to the Bistro; the Library; a 24-hour Café; Full-Service Spa with Barber, Pool, Gym, Worship Center, and Quiet Room; Private Dining; Fine Dining; Wine Cellar; and Sundry Shop.”
On the surface that sounds grand right? A life of convenience, but remember the Butterfly Effect? Everything affects everything.
Could this convenience marketing strategy actually be perpetuating ageism by insulating and isolating older adults from the general population? Could we actually be marketing isolation without realizing it?
What if instead of marketing isolation and confinement-based age and ability, we facilitated connection to people of different ages, abilities, and backgrounds—you know, like a normal kind of life?
What if Senior Living marketing strategies sounded like this instead? “At Happy Days Senior Living, we believe that life only gets better when you engage with others. The transportation center at Happy Days runs 12 hours per day to the local library, the spa, YWCA, YMCA, movie theatre, Main street dining options, the local college, performing arts centers, medical centers, your family home (if within a 30-mile radius). We have trip companions available if needed.”
This pivot in marketing and service delivery shifts senior living from one of isolation to a more human experience, where older adults remain engaged with society as a whole. I don’t know about you, but I am tired of hearing about intergenerational programming that gets excited about “young” people visiting the “compound.” Who needs a “program” when we can create environments that no longer segregate older adults with ageist insolating and isolating marketing and sales strategies?
What would the butterfly effect be if we actually used the vans and buses parked at the front of these communities? What if residents were given Metro Cards, MARTA Passes, Lyft and Uber cards on move-in day, rather than the keys to the compound and a wristband that locks the doors down if you go near them.
We can take such innovations even further by shifting away from the traditional “senior housing” paradigm and embracing MAGIC. (MAGIC stands for Multi-Ability, multi-Generational, Inclusive Communities.) These communities reject segregation by age and ability and celebrate diversity as a core strength of healthy communities. The MAGIC ethos embraces aging as a source of strength and value. The MAGIC approach to architecture, culture, and technology draws on ancient and powerful understandings about the virtues of every age. The first MAGIC Village is scheduled to come to life on the University of Southern Indiana campus in 2020.
There is a new old age waiting to be born. The healthy development of a 21st Century will require us to challenge our bias and stigmas, promote “ability” thinking and inclusivity. Indeed, age segregation is increasingly being revealed as an important contributor to a society-wide “othering” of older people. We can do better– and we will.
*Originally published on Senior Living News
The MAGIC Village is a very good idea. I hope I will be able to visit it when it’s finished.
Amy Malina says
I couldn’t agree more with everything you are saying and trying to implement. I also wish affordable, multi-generational living communities could be created in urban environments where transportation and access to “a life”: cultural, educational and social activities, are either easier to connect with or easier to create within existing transportation systems.
The whole issue of transportation, and something else you mentioned, traveling companions is HUGE! And no more so than for people who have stopped driving, need to stop driving or have developed problems with their sight, hearing or mobility.
Your thinking about all of these subjects is so on point. I just hope the world is listening to you and that the changes you are suggesting become a new reality.
The Tree House project in MA was one of the most exciting and innovative living experiments I have heard of as well. I hope you and similar projects such as Tree House someday become the norm.
Who can afford ONLY $8000 a month. For that I can have a full time live in care giver, stay in my beloved community and have money left over. And this is in expensive California
Gina Donaldson says
Great article and perspective. Here in Victoria as I visited various options for seniors living, I became acutely aware of just how isolating some of the residences were because of either location or as you suggested, amenities. Yes, they were beautiful but frankly not many were in interesting neighbourhoods. Some mitigated this with by making outings an easy and regular part of the day, however, even those had set times and destinations. The simple pleasure of sitting on a balcony or by a window and watching the world go by simply was not available. (and I don’t consider watching highway traffic an acceptable substitute). I am sure many of these residence locations were chosen because the land was not in a desirable neighbourhood and therefore cheap. Thankfully, we are also seeing integrated and seniors oriented like MAGIC popping up in our beautiful downtown. This provides easy access to theatres, shops, restaurants, fitness, museum and seawall walkways. A much better solution!
Rachel McAlpine says
I couldn’t agree more. And when you put it like that — full-on commitment to easy transport instead of to providing sanitised entertainment for oldies only— desegregation might even save money.
Jan Bridges says
I truly believe that this is the right pathway for future senior living. I wish it could happen across our nation yesterday. I have had close up exposure,on a personal rather than professional level, to the varied options in senior living and care for 25 years now. I think I could right pages and pages on those experiences. The best part of the MAGIC model to me is that it not only works for the individual that may need assistance but also the Caregiver and the senior who is alone. It is a win win all the way around. I would give anything to live in a MAGIC community tomorrow….Thank You for all you do!
Joe Wasylyk says
Hi Dr. Bill! Will it be inclusiveness or segregation for Seniors 50+ in the age of empowerment and self-actualization? Segregated retirement communities and senior centers need a complete makeover. I believe that our local communities would be stronger and more inclusive if our local and national politicians were more senior friendly. At the same time we know that small business will be the engine of our new economy and there is a shortage of business owners that have the required skills, knowledge, interests, wisdom and resources to become successful. I propose that we support any new initiatives that brings more seniors into our communities to participate more in eg. social or business entrepreneurship projects; or get more community leadership positions ear marked for seniors. When this happens then seniors will be in a better position to make or influence policy decisions regarding your specific interest (Seniors Housing), Healthcare, Education, the Environment, and Social Issues such as Seniors Poverty.
Judy K says
Interesting concept. We live in two different “senior communities”. One in southern Arizona with slim assistance and one in Western Washington with lots of perks. Of course the Washington one is much more expensive (try ten times more). But does it bring us more happiness?? Not yet. Now…when we have to look for more support services that we can’t receive from friends and neighbors, we may see a greater benefit in the more inclusive and more isolated community. Until then, the less isolated community forces us to interact with a wider range of ages and experiences. For now, both seem to be working for us in quite differing ways.