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Are We Selling Convenience or Isolation?

By Tammy Marshall and Dr. Bill Thomas

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 the 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 need 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 convivences 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? Uber access, a life of convenience, but remember the Butterfly Effect? Everything affects everything.

Could this Uber convenience marketing strategy actually be perpetuating ageism by insolating 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, our 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 wrist band that locks the doors down if you go near them.

We can take such innovations even further by shifting away from 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 2019.

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.

CREDIT: Tammy Marshall has been a healthcare executive for more than 20 years. While in upstate New York, Marshall was at the helm of Strategy for Loretto, as VP for Mission & Strategy. She later moved to NYC to become the Chief Experience Officer for metro New York’s largest long-term care provider. She recently joined Thrive Senior Living as Chief Experience Officer, leading human resources and resident experience. Marshall is also a believer, mother, people lover, relationship builder, magnifier of human potential, bio-hacker, creatrix, barefoot forest bather, yogini, bhakta, and herbalist.

Dr. Bill Thomas is an author, entrepreneur, musician, teacher, farmer and physician whose wide-ranging work explores the terrain of human aging. Best known for his health care system innovations, he founded global non-profit The Eden Alternative, which works to improve the care provided to older people. He is the creator of The Green House®, developed the Senior ER model of care and is now working to transform the acute care services provided to elders. The Wall Street Journal highlighted Thomas as one of the nation’s “top 10 innovators” changing the future of retirement in America, and U.S. News and World Report named him one of “America’s best leaders.”