The Future of Senior Living Is Intergenerational

With the coming generation of boomers, we must cultivate our response and understand that the future of senior living is intergenerational.

Two shows currently on Netflix provide an insight into both the mindset of the next generation of seniors and how they view the senior living options our industry currently provides them.

‘The Kominsky Method’ is a series starring Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas.   Arkin’s character, in his mid-80s, is a talent agent and Douglas’ character, in his mid-70s, is one of his actor clients.  Arkin’s character still manages his talent agency and Douglas runs an acting school.   It is a funny and touching show and is honest in its depiction of the challenges of aging.  As important, both characters live independently in their own homes, both work, and both are actively engaged with those around them of all ages.

‘The Last Laugh’ is a movie starring Chevy Chase and Richard Dreyfus. Chase’s character, in his mid-70s, is also a talent agent and at the beginning of the film he moves into an independent living retirement community named “Palm Sunshine.”  He makes the move upon the urging of his granddaughter after he has taken a few spills in his home.   At Palm Sunshine he runs into his first client, a comedian played by Dreyfus, also in his mid-70s. The retirement community is complete with shuffling seniors, rows of walkers, lame local talent shows, bus trips to the mall and bored seniors sitting around the pool.   At one-point Chase asks Dreyfus, “It doesn’t bother you being around so many old people?“ The community is portrayed, literally, as a place where the “pre-dead” go to die and from which the two escape to take Dreyfus’ act on the road. At the end of the movie Dreyfus’ character passes away and Chase’s character moves out of Palm Sunshine and moves in with his new similar-aged girlfriend who he met while on the road and, presumably, re-opens his talent agency.

Any person over the age of 70 watching these two shows would certainly understand which is the better and preferred senior living path.

The attitude toward senior living reflected in these shows is not atypical and reflects, in my opinion, one of two disruptive threats facing our industry.

Threat #1: The mindset of the next generation of boomers

The first threat, as demonstrated by ‘The Kominsky Method’ and ‘The Last Laugh’, is that the next generation of seniors have a very different mindset than those we are currently serving.  This next generation does not want to be defined by or segregated because of their age.  They will want assistance as-needed but that need will not define them.  They do not want to sacrifice their connection to the outside community.  A recent article in EFA magazine summarized it nicely: “Older adults are increasingly seeking daily routines that enable them to connect with people of all ages and are forging living and working arrangements that are intergenerational,” and I could point to a half-dozen other sources coming to the same conclusion.

Threat #2: Technology

The second coming disruptive threat is, in my opinion, technology.  New apps and devices for communication and monitoring are introduced almost daily.  Plus, what’s coming around the corner are applications and devices with even more sophisticated communication and monitoring capabilities incorporating AI and predictive analytics.  Plus, simple robotic devices that can provide personal assistance, do household chores and help with personal care are on the way.  In response, seniors are predicted to spend $84 billion on tech products in the next 10 years.  These current and new technologies will take away many of the reasons we originally segregated seniors and why some seniors or their families choose senior living today.   Had Chevy Chase’s granddaughter simply set him up with an Apple watch with fall detection, Alexa with voice command and video call capability, and an account with Uber, it would have addressed all the reasons why he moved into Palm Sunshine.  And presumably at a much lower price point.

Our response: Making senior living intergenerational

In my opinion, making our communities look and feel more intergenerational will be a necessary response to these two threats.

Communities will still provide the best of what we currently offer: universally designed residences, access to services, the ability to age in place and access to a continuum of care if needed.   But communities with intergenerational elements will also reflect the next generation’s preferences and provide something that technology cannot – a real interpersonal connection to the fabric of the neighborhood and local community.

I have been tracking this trend closely and incorporating intergenerational elements in seniors housing can take many forms, but I believe it comes down to two basic concepts: Perception & connection.

Perception & connection

Perception entails a realization that most senior living communities incorporate a predictable design motif, they “look like seniors housing,” and create a real or perceived separation from their surrounding neighborhoods.   Instead, we need to incorporate design principles of mixed-use, traditional neighborhood design & New Urbanism, the “Great Good Place,” placemaking and walkability; not separating but integrating.

Creating connection entails offering amenities and services that tie the community to its neighborhood and community-at-large and take away the stigma of “moving into seniors housing.”  It is creating an easily walkable connection to the surrounding neighborhood.   Hosting local neighborhood events, offering use of the auditorium and certain common area to the neighborhood, or, e.g. setting aside office or conference room space for use by local non-profits. Or, opening amenities such as a bistro or coffee shop to the neighbors or being a site for satellite university classes.

Recent examples of completed or on-the drawing board projects that have addressed “perception & connection” include:

  • Communities built in the heart of an existing downtown or in a New Urbanist community with walkable access to variety of restaurants, coffee shops, services and other amenities;
  • Communities building single family homes for non-seniors surrounding their campus;
  • Communities with first floor retail serving their residents and the larger neighborhood;
  • Mixing seniors and families in the same building;
  • Nursing with onsite child care;
  • Building a rehabilitation and hospital sponsored health club open to the general public next to and connected with a new senior living community.

I can provide two other examples from my personal experience:

Saint John’s on the Lake in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is an urban hi-rise from which residents can easily walk to a variety of restaurants and shops.  The community is home to a Museum of Wisconsin Art gallery with the exhibitions and openings open to the public.  The community’s Institute on Aging hosts onsite a UW Milwaukee undergraduate course titled Aged to Perfection.  The fitness center and pool are open to guests, family and staff as well as residents.  Every year the community hosts a week-long symposium on Spirituality & Aging which brings  200-300 non-resident attendees of all ages on campus.

When you drive by Rose Villa in Portland, Oregon you see what looks like a cool, mixed-use community.  There is a Main Street with apartments above and branded outward-facing commons. It looks and feels nothing like “seniors housing”.  Nearby neighbors can stop in the coffee shop, dine in the restaurant or make a purchase at the gardening store.  Local community groups rehearse and present shows in the community auditorium.  The community hosts events for the neighborhood on its Main Street such as a farmer’s market and art fair.

Walk Score has created a ‘walkability score’ which non-seniors’ developers, and their renters and buyers, use to gauge a site or project’s walkable connection to its neighborhood.  I’ve started working on an ‘intergenerational score’ to evaluate a senior living community’s connection to its neighborhood and community at large and perhaps that is a subject for a future post.

Having followed and studied this trend very closely this past year, in my opinion, the future of senior living is intergenerational. If you would like to learn more about this topic, I have posted links to articles, materials and references on intergenerational senior living at the link below:

About the author:

Craig Witz, the principal of Witz Company, has more than 30 years successful seniors living experience. Before forming Witz Company in 2002, he served as a senior development manager with both regional and national senior living development firms. He has national experience on small and large independent living, assisted living, congregate and Life Plan communities. He is a member of Leading Age Wisconsin and is a licensed attorney.

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