3 Ways Life Plan Communities Can Foster Genuine Social Interaction to Enhance the Lives of Residents

by | Sep 9, 2021

By John Franklin, Founder & Principal, Pearl Creek Advisors

As Life Plan Communities talk about providing residents and prospects the opportunity to live their best lives, we’re seeing the discussion shift a bit. Rather than focusing on the amenities and activities, today’s seniors want more. They want a place where they can truly connect with the people around them—a place where they can fulfill the innate need for human interaction and belonging. To stay relevant, Life Plan Communities must respond.

Providing what senior consumers really want (and need) is the core subject of Love & Company’s recent two-part webinar series. The September 16 session focused on social connection and engagement. It’s a topic that energizes me and the rest of the esteemed panel, so I hope you’ll click here to watch the session recording. You can also click here to watch part one, “Integrated Wellness & Prevention.”

My observations over the past few years support that the core value proposition of Life Plan Communities is shifting heavily toward social connection and engagement. I’ve authored a three-part white paper series on the science, obstacles and solutions around helping Life Plan Communities empower true social connection.

For the sake of space and time, this piece will only cover some of those concepts, but you can review the entire white paper series by clicking here. For now, let’s examine three ways that Life Plan Communities can build their social connection and engagement programs so that their members are fulfilled and can reap the scientific and social benefits of genuine human interaction.

Create a program that goes beyond your community’s walls

From a broad-base standpoint, combating social isolation and enabling social connectedness do not need to be limited to the walls of a Life Plan Community. For example, many organizations that have created successful social interaction and engagement programs have made them “inside-out,” in that the organization partners with an outside group or entity in the local community.

We’re wired as a species to help each other, so partnering with charitable or advocacy organizations that align with your community’s mission is a good place to start. Most not-for-profit organizations welcome extra help anyway, so participating residents can further enhance their sense of purpose by working with those types of off-campus groups.

Going beyond the community’s walls can also be as simple as offering programming that takes residents off campus regularly, especially to places that offer easy opportunities for social interaction. So, I’m not just talking about the mall, doctor’s office or grocery store.

Think nearby college or university campuses, cultural organizations, arts centers and more. Tomorrow’s senior living prospects want to remain connected to what matters to them, and they’ll look to your community to give them ways to interact beyond what’s available at the activities center on campus.

Speaking of campus, a different kind of campus can play an important role in offering ample, meaningful opportunities for social interaction and engagement.

Create a program that enables intergenerational connections

Social connections can be especially rich when they cross generational lines, and my view is that Life Plan Communities don’t focus on such opportunities enough—yet. Similar to the prior note about off-campus partners, your community can partner with nearby grade schools, colleges and/or universities to make these intergenerational programs happen. Presbyterian Homes of Georgia is already doing so.

“We’re probably 10 minutes from the University of Georgia in Athens, and we’re teaming up with them for intergenerational programming,” Cameron Honeycutt, executive director at Presbyterian Village Athens and fellow webinar panelist, said. “We’re working with their Institute of Gerontology for memory care programming so that their students can further their education while providing our residents with intergenerational interactions.”

As another intergenerational example that isn’t associated with an educational institution, one provider in the Boston area incorporated the federal “foster grandparent” initiative. The program connects children with exceptional or special needs with seniors, who in this case are members of the Life Plan Community. When community members participate in mentoring, it boosts their sense of purpose while providing valuable guidance and mentorship to the children.

Intergenerational programs can also be simpler than those mentioned above. Kyle Robinson, partner at senior living software solutions provider Wellzesta (and fellow webinar panelist) noted that many communities involve local junior high and high school students to help residents get up to speed on today’s tech (including the Wellzesta platform). Arrangements like that are especially wise, considering how crucial solid technology is to any social interaction and engagement program.

Create a program that’s augmented by technology

As noted just now, supporting your organization’s social connection and engagement program with strong technology is key and will allow community members to interact even if they’re physically apart. Technology will never replace human interaction and contact; however, keeping people connected (especially during times like COVID-19) should be a culture-shifting goal for your Life Plan Community.

Aside from hardware and software, being aware of the nuances of tech-based social connection is also important. For example, rather than watch on-demand, some people enjoy watching a set broadcast because they know that others are watching with them. That is one approach that activities coordinators can take with over-the-air or online social programming.

Speaking of personnel, if your community really wants to embrace the value proposition of genuine social connection and engagement, it needs someone to “carry the banner” of the program for the organization. This person can be an advocate for residents and make sure they can access and enjoy the tech-based resources, as well as simpler things like coordinating signage and kiosks to make people aware of what’s available. Your community can have the best app in the world, but if nobody knows about it (or how to use it), residents won’t reap the benefits.

That brings to mind three other cautionary points to consider when crafting a social interaction and engagement program:

  • Fear is probably the biggest roadblock that organizations face when crafting social engagement programs. If your organization knows it can improve but is hesitant to effect real change out of fear of what the board may think, it doesn’t do the residents or community’s future prospects any favors.
  • Unawareness is also a concern in that some communities may not realize they lack quality social interaction programs. If the onset of the pandemic and all the media reports about seniors’ isolation at Life Plan Communities hasn’t stirred you into action, what have you been doing the past 18 months?
  • Hubris has come into play for organizations that have healthy waitlists and census figures. They see the good data and may not have the foresight to target the true value propositions that tomorrow’s seniors seek. “Because we always have done it this way” is not a valid excuse for shirking a social engagement program.

Finally, even if your organization provides bona fide opportunities for social interaction and engagement, it should be careful to make sure that its program is not inadvertently creating social isolation rather than solving it. Sometimes the loneliest situations are actually when you’re around others (think of attending a party at which you don’t know anyone), so Life Plan Communities should pay attention to how they bring people together.

For example, a community in New Hampshire found that in its dining room (typically a place for high resident interaction), background noise prevented people from verbally interacting. Those with hearing impairments suffered from social isolation despite being surrounded by their neighbors.

On a higher level, sometimes senior living communities can be as cliquish as high school. Bullying can occur anywhere, so your team should watch for signs of residents isolating others (especially new residents). One good solution is to create a “buddy system” in which “veteran” residents take new residents under their wing to help make connections for them and get them entwined with the fabric of the community.

“There are some stigmas associated with loneliness as well,” Cameron adds. “People don’t want to admit they’re lonely, just like they don’t want to admit if they’re having health challenges. Creating a culture and an environment in which residents feel safe while being vulnerable will go a long way, and that can come from staff as well as neighbors.”

I recall a statistic that noted that 40 to 50 percent of Life Plan Community members surveyed admitted that they feel lonely; and with the stigma in mind, the true number is likely even higher. That only increases the importance of making sure that your community can serve those crucial, Maslow’s hierarchy-level needs and begin to shift the value proposition of Life Plan Communities. It’s also simply the right thing to do!

We’re seeing the importance of getting away from a care model and toward a lifestyle and purpose model, and it’s up to organizations like yours to be ready for the next generation of seniors. I hope you’ll check out the recent webinar in which we discuss these themes further. Click here to watch the session recording.

For more articles covering senior housing trends and how providers must adapt to them to continue fulfilling their missions, click here. To download Love & Company’s brand-new white paper, “Senior Housing Trends: 2021,” click here.

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