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A New Twist on Planned Senior Communities

These 4 focus on wellness and quality of life

By Beth Baker and SCAN Foundation

Across the country, developers are re-imagining community life, creating holistic settings that will appeal to older people.

“Traditional senior housing focuses more on immediate health care needs and fear of loss,” says Ryan Frederick, founder and CEO of Smart Living 360. “We’re focusing on asking people, ‘What do you want this next chapter to look like?’”

Many bank on boomers' ongoing interest in wellness, remaining active and staying connected across generations.

“The issue that really plagues our [traditional] model of senior living is, no matter how progressive people get with it, or no matter how many theaters they put in or bars with cocktails or chandeliers, there’s a certain segregation factor,” says Steve Shields, CEO of ActionPact. “We believe boomers are going to prefer a less homogenous, isolated life,” says Shields.

‘Town Within a Town’

A pioneer in transformative eldercare, Shields is leading the development of a town-within-a-town in Liberty, Mo., that will focus on wellness and intergenerational living. The project, Healthy Living Community, is a partnership between ActionPact and Liberty Hospital.

Town life will center around a “Healthy Living Center” complex that includes 6,500 square feet of: state-of-the-art exercise space, a yoga studio, a spinning room and four swimming pools as well as a restaurant, bistro, theater and childcare center – all open to the broader Liberty community.

One core element will be households — rather than traditional assisted living or nursing homes — for those who need long-term care services (as I wrote about in my book Old Age in a New Age: The Promise of Transformative Nursing Homes). As the community builds out, a variety of housing types will be available for rent, for people of all ages. Shields anticipates monthly rents will be market rate for the Kansas City area, ranging from $1,800 to $4,800 or more for the largest spaces. The first phase opens in 2017.

Other planned communities are also weaving well-being into their design and operations. (Unfortunately none are what you’d call affordable housing.) A sampling:

Walkability in Close-In Suburbs

Smart Living 360 and Federal Realty are partnering on an upcoming 48-unit rental complex for people 55+ in Rockville, Md., called The Stories. The model is based on five characteristics used by Gallup-Healthways in their community surveys of well-being: a sense of purpose, supportive relationships, financial security, pride in community and physical health.

Visitors to the leasing center will be presented with a wall of graphics, aimed at prompting them to envision their next chapter, based on these five areas of well-being. “In terms of how the community develops, we have every intention of encouraging those dimensions,” says Frederick.

To that end, he has hired a “lifestyle ambassador,” Greg Timpone, who will act not only as a concierge but also as a liaison, both within the apartment complex and with the broader community. Whether it’s helping people use their new FitBits, connecting residents with a common interest in Habitat for Humanity or a book club or referring residents to services and entertainment in the greater community, Timpone says he hopes to “really make a difference in someone’s life.”

The pet-friendly complex will includs a full fitness center, pool and barbeque grills. Located in a busy residential and commercial area, residents will be able to walk to a large shopping center, restaurants, movies and public transportation. Frederick anticipates the complex will open in spring 2016. Monthly rents will range from $2,500 to $4,000.

Life in the Natural World

Outside Atlanta, Ga., Serenbe is a growing community in a pastoral setting in the Chattahoochee Hill Country. The community is made up of distinct “hamlets,” each with a focus — the arts, organic farming and a new one dedicated to health and wellness. Two hundred homes have been built, out an eventual 1,200, and the community is for people of all ages.

Homes are pricey — from $300,000 to more than 10 times that — but rental apartments and carriage houses are encouraged to allow for more affordable options, including for multigenerational families.

Steve Nygren, who cofounded the community with his wife, Marie, was frustrated with the typical senior housing. From the asethetics (“mauve colored carpet, dark stain molding, heavy draperies”) to the rules governing community life and the age restriction, Nygren thought he could do a lot better.

“Here, it feels like a town,” he says, “versus retirement communities that feel like a cruise ship.”

Serenbe includes nature trails, a 25-acre organic farm, a farmer’s market, outdoor theater, artist-in-residence program and spa, among other features.

Tom Blum, a retired physician, and his wife, Christina, an artist, moved there eight years ago from Minneapolis, Minn.


“Well-being flows from people who are participating in the community,” says Tom. “People at Serenbe are really open to that,” whether it’s giving each other rides to the airport or bringing meals and helping with yard work when someone is sick.

Other wellness-promoting features of life are a vibrant arts scene and stimulating discussion groups and lectures, he adds.

The new health and wellness hamlet includes a senior housing piece, located across from the community pool and a childcare center. “We understand the importance of connecting intergenerationally,” Nygren says.

Sixteen two-bedroom cottages will soon open for older people, each with front doors that lead to a nature garden. “They won’t look wheelchair-accessible, but they will be,” says Nygren. “The paths lead up to a large common house that faces on the main street.” The common house will be jointly owned by the cottage owners and used for group meals or family gatherings.

Another building will look like a large home, but will have 12 efficiency apartments of 500 square feet each that open to shared spaces. “Everyone will eat in community and one unit would be operated by a caregiver,” Nygren says.

The key, he adds, is “not how seniors are going to live, but how they engage in a meaningful way in a community and how can they still contribute.”

New Age Assisted Living

Long-term care providers, too, are seeking to break the institutional mold. Tree of Life assisted living in San Diego, Calif., offers “therapeutic elder care” to residents, many of whom have dementia, in a home setting with an unusual offering of wellness and complementary therapies.

Developed by a software developer turned elder care advocate and psychotherapist Montgomery Ostrander, the model stresses quality of life. “I’m moving from curative to palliative in a holistic way,” he says.

Each of four homes has six residents. There are also three dogs, raised garden beds and opportunities for art and music. Rates are from $4,000 to $4,500 a month (the national monthly average for assisted living is $3,500).

One caregiver is a Reiki practitioner who conducts body work and hands-on healing. The diet is organic and heavy on anti-inflammatory foods and fresh juices. Wheelchair yoga is offered twice a week. Ostrander also incorporates shamanistic spirituality, such as a house blessing conducted by a friend who is a member of the Pima tribe.

Ostrander hopes to conduct research to measure how effective these alternative approaches are, especially for people with dementia.

In the meantime, he says, “The proudest achievement that I have is that every single person came in on antidepressants and every one of them was off after six months. I think it’s because of the engagement. I would do rounds and sit one hour a week with each resident. And we do fun things, too.”


Beth Baker is a longtime journalist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, AARP Bulletin, and Ms. Magazine. She is the author of With a Little Help from Our Friends — Creating Community as We Grow Older and of Old Age in a New Age — The Promise of Transformative Nursing Homes. Read More
By SCAN Foundation
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