The senior living industry has improved dramatically over the past 10-15 years. Assisted living revolutionized options for individuals needing assistance but not needing nursing care. We have the nice-place-to-live-good-food-full-activity-schedule-close-to-healthcare-thing down to a science now, but it is time for a new revolution. There are a lot of dedicated people working endlessly to create activity schedules designed to draw residents into a broad range of programs that hopefully provide moments of meaning and purpose. Regardless of all the efforts, average participation rates hover around the 20-30% mark. In addition, people still dread the idea of moving into assisted living because it represents both loss of independence and loss of ones place in the broader community. It is time for an entirely new approach.
If the defined goal is to improve quality of life by offering opportunities for meaning and purpose, why not use meaning and purpose as the very foundation of senior living? I challenge the industry to completely re-think the purpose of senior housing. Instead of focusing on "taking care of people who need assistance", what if the purpose was to "provide assistance with activities of daily living so that individuals can continue to contribute to the broader community"? When we view the role of senior housing from this perspective it starts to open possibilities. What if we started viewing residents as untapped resources; individuals with time, experience and various levels of abilities to help solve community problems?
Suddenly community initiatives that are usually underfunded and understaffed (i.e. food banks, recycling centers, animal shelters, after school programs, etc.) become a good match for the resource of senior living residents. There are opportunities for individuals of almost all functional abilities. A resident may be wheelchair bound but able to listen to a child read or talk about their day during an after school program. Another may have cognitive issues but is perfectly able to work in an organic garden that provides fresh vegetables for a food bank.
Now I want to be clear; this approach is not just another program. It is an entire shift in thinking that creates purpose driven senior living communities. In existing communities every staff and resident would have a vote in what community projects/purposes they wanted to address. Perhaps they want to focus on community needs or broader issues such as environmental or political activism. In new developments, planners would spend less time worrying about the location being "close to healthcare" and look for sites close to a school or some other community entity that always needs more man/woman power. They would integrate things like food banks, recycling centers, animal shelters and community gardens right into the properties.
When we shift our thinking from a paternalistic caretaking model to a model of partners in purpose then we open the door to revolutionizing the senior living industry. Suddenly, meaning and purpose is built into every aspect of he physical and emotional environments of senior housing. It is time for the next great step forward for this industry.