As an undergraduate student, I was inspired to become a gerontologist after learning about the 1976 research study in which psychologists Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin investigated the effects of choice and enhanced personal responsibility for the aged, which resulted in a groundbreaking study on the impact of loneliness on seniors. They selected two floors of a nursing home. One group was told the staff was there to help them. Despite the care, 71 percent got worse in co-morbidity quality indicators in only three weeks. On the other floor, where seniors were encouraged to make decisions for themselves, 93 percent of the residents improved their quality of life. They were more active and happier. They were more mentally alert and more engaged in activities.
Today the aged care industry is changing dramatically around the globe – and a shift towards personal responsibility and societal interaction is at the forefront of this revolution.
Nursing homes are being replaced with centres of living, designed as small households where perhaps a dozen people live together. They share meals around a large dining room table, with an open kitchen and access to food 24/7. The seniors choose what they want to do and when they want to do it. The small homes have no characteristic features of a traditional nursing home. There is no central nursing station and no long corridors or bright fluorescent lights. Residents are not rushed to make it to a meal on time. Such revolutionary models are disrupting the aged-care sector and, in some markets, traditional old-age institutions are reinventing themselves as small homes or closing down.
We are also seeing homes for the aged being built in the midst of residential neighbourhoods, creating a community hub not just for seniors but also for middle-aged adults, young adults and children. These vibrant town centres are complete with community amenities such as libraries, pools, restaurants, child care, schools, and senior wellness centres.
In a Netherland’s university, it was found that student dormitories were full, but a nearby home for the aged had vacant suites. Students were invited to move in with the seniors, and soon became actively engaged in the new multigenerational community. This movement has morphed across Europe, where families live nearby, becoming volunteers supporting seniors while their kids adopt a senior as a grandparent.
The more famous dementia village, a short-train ride from Amsterdam, turned the nursing home upside down with its small-house concept of six people living in a household with walkable access to a complete village within a secured perimeter. The most innovative aspect of this community is the general store where seniors, accompanied by a caregiver, shop each day for the household groceries and supplies. These seniors, most of whom have advanced dementia, are experiencing industry leading aged care a generation ahead of its time.
In Tokyo Japan, 10 centenarians with dementia live together in a group home where their daily choices include meals, walking exercises, and meaningful activities. Seniors are retrained so they longer use incontinence pads, saving money while improving dignity, self-esteem and quality of life. Physiotherapists mobilize seniors out of their wheelchairs to walk with mobility aides.
The Village Movement is an offshoot of the sharing economy. Hundreds of online virtual villages are popping up all over the United States with more on the drawing boards. These villages are low-cost ways to age in place and can delay going to assisted-living facilities. The core of these villages is referrals to household repair services, yardwork, picking up prescriptions or taking members shopping, to the doctor or even personal trainers.
Another innovative living option is senior cohousing, which is also focused on aging well in community. Residents design and manage senior cohousing themselves relying on mutual support and a resident caregiver they hire as needed. Communities are designed for physical accessibility as well as financial, environmental, and social sustainability.
We have come a long way from how our grandparents were housed and treated. With the research and understanding now emerging, seniors housing is becoming more welcoming and healthy for future generations.