The Intergenerational Senior Living Experience: Three Questions to Ask

Nov 13, 2019 | Guest Contributors

Guest blog by Craig Witz of Witz Company

Craig Witz provides three questions that each forward-thinking organization should ask itself if it is ready to embrace the intergenerational senior living experience.

The visionary classic The Experience Economy, originally published in 1998 and being re-released later this year, argued that businesses could no long simply offer goods and services; instead we were entering a new economic era in which successful businesses must create memorable events and experiences for their customers.  The experience economy not only happened but “creating experience” has become the expectation.

For a variety of social and cultural reasons, the next generation of seniors will want a different type of senior living experience than what we currently offer.

This next generation of seniors will continue to want residential and universal design, the ability to age-in-place and access to services and supportive living, as we offer now; but there is growing indication they do not want to be defined by or segregated by their age.  Instead, while still having access to services if needed, they also want to feel that they are a part of and connected to the larger neighborhood and community.

And if we don’t provide that experience, current and around-the-corner advancements in technology will allow them to simply stay at home.

This can pose a challenge as the current design template does not lend itself ideally to intergenerational programming. And it requires a re-thinking of the approach to operations as well as design to maximize intergenerational involvement.  I recently reviewed 35 existing or in-development communities around the country that are incorporating intergenerational elements and it is clear there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but a multitude of possible design, programming and service offerings that can successfully incorporate intergenerational elements. 

However, while there is a variety of intergenerational options, the end result—the experience of the resident—does seem to be fairly consistent.

For those looking to incorporate intergenerational elements to their existing or new community, I would let the design and operations be guided by asking three questions based on the intended experience of your resident. You might also ask these three questions about your existing community to see how it will match up against future more-intergenerationally attuned competition.

1. Is the community design and its first impression not like that of typical ‘seniors housing’ but more like mixed-use?

Does the community look like a traditional, single purpose “senior living” project or, instead, does it look and feel more like a cool mixed-use development?   A key indicator is whether the first impression of the building and campus is such that the community occasionally gets walk-in traffic from non-seniors who think this is a non-age restricted apartment or condominium.

I think most will acknowledge that there is a ‘boilerplate’ design in our industry; you can identify the typical senior living community immediately with its typical setback from the street, porte cochere, hub & spoke layout, inwardly focused commons, etc.  

The alternative, creating a contemporarily designed, attractive building with activity visible from the street, more akin to a mixed-use building, is important both for attracting residents but also making the community accessible, friendly and inviting to non-seniors participating in intergenerational programs on the campus.  Communities that have created intergenerational programs in traditionally designed buildings often find non-residents leery of having to navigate into the current conventionally laid out internally focused commons.

Incorporating elements of new urbanism in site planning and mixed-use development in the building plan makes the building more inviting for both prospective residents and non-residents.

For example, the Rose Villa and Mary’s Woods communities in Portland, Oregon, at first impression, look like attractive mixed-use projects, brought up to the street and with intergenerational commons up by the entrance.   Rose Villa boasts an inviting Main Street and Mary’s Woods provides retail open to the public right at the front door of the community.   There is nothing “senior living” looking about either of these projects.

2. Are there intergenerational activities or amenities off-campus that don’t require a car or bus for the resident to participate?

This gets both to site selection and site planning.   Does the resident have walkable connections off campus to services and amenities, so they are not feeling like they are on an age-segregated island?  

For example, the Saint John’s community in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is in an urban setting with a variety of restaurants and retail within close walking distance.  But creating or maximizing nearby walkable connections is not limited to just urban settings.  The Middleton Glen community in Middleton, Wisconsin, is located within a master planned suburban neo-traditional neighborhood with retail and single-family homes a short walk away.  Union Village in Ohio is developing a subdivision of single-family non-seniors’ homes next to and with walkable connections to their campus.  There are many new campuses being proposed or in development on college campuses, providing residents with walkable connections to college amenities.  Other communities are being built in new master-planned developments with built-in walkable access to dining and retail.

3. On a typical day, are there non-residents of all ages (not including staff or guests) on campus participating in programs or events?

Many communities offer access to amenities to non-resident seniors on the community waitlist. But there are a multitude of ways to invite non-residents of all ages on campus to create a true intergenerational environment and experience.  Many communities now open the coffee shop or a dining venue to the neighborhood.  Some rent space for services used by residents but also by those in the neighborhood, e.g. therapy, massage, beauty or a legal practice. Others host a college lecture series or serve as the rehearsal or performance venue for local theatre productions.  The Evergreen community in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, offers conference space to local non-profits while other communities provide meeting space for neighborhood groups or host local book clubs.  Rose Villa will soon be offering child daycare integrated with its supportive living center.   Other examples of communities bringing non-residents on campus on a regular basis include providing classroom space for college extension courses,  serving as a satellite gallery for the local public art museum,  offering wellness classes for both residents and neighbors, hosting a weekly farmer’s market or annual neighborhood holiday party and Christmas tree lighting, or sponsoring an on-campus annual 10k fundraiser.

More and more communities can answer ‘yes’ to one or two of these three questions.  Communities that can answer ‘yes’ to all three of them are both changing the perception of what is a typical senior living community as well as providing the experience that this next generation of seniors will demand.

For more information about Witz Company, click here.

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