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At This Affordable Senior Living Community, Volunteering Will Be Required

Opus Newton is a new idea to counter the trend of senior living that's out of reach for the middle class

By Sally Abrahms

Linda Helfet, 78, and her husband Bill Hilliker, 86, always thought they would grow old in their beloved Watertown, Mass., condo just outside Boston. But with one son living in Oregon and the other in Georgia, they've begun to worry. "What's going to happen when either Bill or I are gone?" says Helfet. "One of us will be all alone."

Linda Helfet and Bill Hilliker are fans of the Opus senior living concept, Affordable senior living, volunteering
Linda Helfet and Bill Hilliker are fans of the Opus Newton senior living concept  |  Credit: Photo courtesy of Linda Helfet and Bill Hilliker

Thinking about the high cost of health care as they age has been equally unsettling for the couple.

Helfet and Hilliker toured a luxury long-term care community where friends live. The hefty buy-in cost and monthly fees were steep. And, asks Helfet, "Who needs five restaurants and someone to wait on me?"

The Plan for Opus Newton

Then she heard about Opus Newton, a new type of senior living development for people 62+ catering to the underserved middle-income market around Boston. The not-for-profit community will be built on the intergenerational campus of the Jewish Community Center Greater Boston (JCC) in Newton, Mass.

"We're not just about making senior living affordable to the middle market, but about aging in community in a dynamic and supportive environment."

"There's going to be a line out the door for this opportunity," says Robert Kramer, a senior living expert and founder and fellow at Nexus Insights, a think tank focused on the well-being of older adults.

Senior living development prices are typically dictated by the care options offered and by geography — it usually costs more to live in a senior living community in a metropolitan area than in a small city or town. A 2019 study by NORC at the University of Chicago defines middle-income senior living candidates as people 75 and older with annual financial resources of $25,000 to $95,000.

Many older Americans have too much money to qualify for government-subsidized housing but not enough to pay for long-term care. According to a 2020 Genworth Cost of Care Survey, the yearly median cost of assisted living is $51,600; it's $105,800 for a private room in a nursing home and $54,912 for a home health aide.

By 2029, the NORC/University of Chicago study estimated, the number of middle-income people 75+ will nearly double to 14.4 million, with 54% of them unable to afford private-pay senior living. Some 60% of them will have mobility limitations and 20% will have high health care and functional needs.

A Different Kind of Senior Housing

Enter Opus Newton.

It's the unique vision of senior living developer 2LifeCommunities and its president and CEO Amy Schectman. 2Life Communities operates five campuses in Massachusetts for low-income older adults; this is its first one for middle-income people — middle-income in the high-cost Boston area, that is.

With six years of brainstorming, Shectman and her team realized that if they made adjustments to the traditional senior living model, their project could have first-rate programs and services and be affordable.

Residents will be required to volunteer roughly 10 hours a month, partly so less staff will be needed.

Among the Opus Newton differences: Residents will be required to volunteer roughly 10 hours a month, partly so less staff will be needed; a location near a sprawling state park (to reduce the cost of offering recreational activities) and partnering with companies, such as health care providers, local restaurants, salons and ride-share companies for better prices and high-quality services.

A staff member will work with residents to find health services they need, from support for daily tasks to rehab after a hospital stay to longer- term care. This navigator can also help them manage medical bills and insurance.

Rendering of the Opus senior living community, affordable senior housing, volunteering
Rendering of the Opus Newton senior living community  |  Credit: Courtesy of Opus

Instead of memory care and skilled nursing on the campus, like most Life Plan communities (or continuing care residential communities), Opus Newton health care will be brought into residents' apartments with home care providers. Home care agencies typically charge a four-hour minimum. But if you only need help for 15 minutes to shower, at Opus Newton, that's all you'll pay.

The development will save money by spreading a caregiver's time among others in the building. Opus Newton will leverage this steady stream of this work to get competitive pricing. It's currently identifying best-in-class home care and health care providers and exploring partnerships with managed care and Medicare Advantage providers.

The 174 one- and two-bedroom apartments (650 to 1,350 square feet) won't be built until 2025, but more than 1,000 people ages 62 to 90+ have placed themselves on an early interest list to "buy" a life-long lease. Residents will also pay an upfront fee that Opus Newton calls a "Community Share," typically from the sale of the person's home before moving in. Eighty percent of the Community Share fee will be refunded if a resident leaves or dies.

Opus Newton recently began accepting refundable $500 deposits which will assure early appointments to hear the final details about the community in Spring 2022.

Preliminary prices for the Community Share are $302,000 to $732,000, which may be out of reach for some middle-class older adults.

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The company won't say yet exactly how much monthly rents for its life leases will be but says they will be "very reasonable" and that most will be $2,500 or less. By comparison, the median cost of assisted living is $4,300 a month, according to Genworth.

Monthly fees will cover a food credit, utilities, apartment maintenance, most programming (including wellness and lifelong learning) and health care navigation services. Housekeeping, parking and hands-on care will cost extra.

The refundable component of the Community Share can be drawn down to pay for home care for residents who can't afford the care otherwise.

Tapping Into Residents' Wisdom and Experience

"We're not just about making senior living affordable to the middle market, but about aging in community in a dynamic and supportive environment," says Schectman. "Society often assumes that older adults have no use or purpose. We're saying, 'You've got wisdom, experience and perspective. You can continue to contribute and share your talents and interests and we're going to facilitate that.'"

"Being involved in making our community is really cool."

During the pandemic, 2Life Communities convened Zoom "think-ins" with prospective residents. They were asked questions such as: If you wanted dining, what would it look like? And, what aspects of diversity and technology are important to you?

"Being involved in making our community is really cool," says Helfet.

Says Kramer: "Besides the price point, offering help navigating health care is a huge perk you don't see in active adult and middle market housing."

Volunteering Is Key

The volunteering aspect of Opus Newton is key to both keeping costs down and keeping residents happy. "It's not volunteerism in a drudgery way, as an afterthought or an add-in," says Opus Newton project manager Elise Selinger. "It's inherent in the ethos of the community."

Even before residents move in, a volunteer coordinator will ask about their background and interests.

Helaine Block, 64, a retired teacher considering moving into Opus Newton, says she can see herself working in the community garden. "There are a lot of possibilities," she says.

Other volunteers might arrange a speaker series, organize a dinner out or sit at the front desk welcoming visitors.

"Everyone has something to contribute," says Schectman, "What they want to, or can do, may change over time, and Opus will adjust."

The concept of volunteering in senior living is not new, but requiring it is. The Kendal Corporation, for example, has 12 lifelong learning communities on, or near, college campuses and residents often teach courses to their peers.

Locating in a Vibrant Place

Schectman knew that building on the existing, amenity-rich JCC campus would be a tremendous moneysaver. On site is an indoor and outdoor pool, auditorium, classes and fitness center for Opus occupants who join the JCC. (Opus's own two-story building will have a small gym, restaurant, classrooms, art studio, clinic space and hair salon.)

Next door are 146 subsidized apartments for older adults that 2Life Communities operates. A connecting building between the two residences will be for shared services, programs and for friends to mitigate feelings of loneliness and social isolation.

The JCC has a preschool and summer camp and activities for all ages and for Hilliker, the intergenerational ambience is a major draw. "My wife and I didn't want to be surrounded by just old people," he says.

Amy Schectman, creator of Opus Newton, affordable senior housing, volunteering
Amy Schectman, creator of Opus Newton   |  Credit: Courtesy of Opus

Since Opus Newton is still four years away, some prospective residents hope the timing will work for them.

"I want something now, but there isn't something now," says Joyce Picard, 89. "Am I going to make it? That's the goal!"

Trading in the four-bedroom Colonial she's lived in since 1962 for Opus Newton makes sense, Picard thinks. Even with nine attentive grandsons, she notes, "I know I will need some services in case there's a health crisis."

Services like that are only one kind of support she's apt to find.

"We believe anyone's person fulfillment is made possible by sharing it in community," says Schectman. "It's just like a Beethoven symphony. If I listen to just the flutes, it's beautiful. Or just the violins, it's beautiful. But when I listen to all the instruments together, it transcends what any one instrument can do to make a masterpiece, a magnum opus."

Sally Abrahms is an award-winning writer specializing in aging, caregiving, boomers, housing and aging in place.  She has written for Next Avenue, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, AARP, Kiplinger's and other media outlets. Her website is sallyabrahms.com. Read More
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