LeadingAge Magazine · March-April 2020 • Volume 10 • Number 02

Meeting in the Middle: Community as a Middle Market Strategy

February 16, 2020 | by Kenya McCullum

If a true middle market model requires greatly reduced amenities, can the gap be filled by intentionally building a strong sense of community?

When it comes to the middle market, organizations that offer housing and services for seniors are trying to find the best options for people who don’t have the resources for life plan communities, or eligibility for government subsidy.

While questions related to finances remain important, there is another element that providers might also consider when weighing their options: community. Although having the most cutting-edge amenities can be attractive to many, it is the sense of belonging and connection that really gives people long-term satisfaction and purpose. The following are some ways that this issue is being addressed by various service models.

Community Is Intergenerational

Portland, OR-based Bridge Meadows has a unique organizational model that serves not only seniors, but 3 generations of residents that come together in a community with a special purpose—to create forever families and abundant lives for children who have been adopted out of foster care. Older adults connect with other people in their community as they do something meaningful.

Bridge Meadows photo
At Bridge Meadows, community is built in. The organizations serves 132 residents: 48 former foster youth; 23 parents, mostly single-woman heads of household, many with a kinship relationship to the youth they are parenting; and 61 low-to-moderate income elders. Photo courtesy of Bridge Meadows.

 

“We see on a daily basis how people in the elder years really want to be seen and live with meaning and purpose and not be invisible. So, by offering a way to engage and make the world a better place by supporting these young children and their neighbors, people have a sense of belonging,” says Bridge Meadows Executive Director Derenda Schubert. “Our brains are designed for us to belong to one another, so when you live with this sense of ‘I belong and I matter,’ you live an abundant life.”

Bridge Meadows offers services designed to help residents live their lives abundantly. For example, the organization has therapeutic interventions in the form of individual, family, and group therapy in order to give them the ongoing support they need—as well as crisis and case management services when necessary. In addition, in partnership with those who live in the community, Bridge Meadows offers residents numerous opportunities to come together through social gatherings and education programs that they participate in on a volunteer basis. This allows members of the community to spend time together as they share activities that bring them joy—whether that means teaching an art class to the children or planning a social activity.

Another way Bridge Meadows provides a sense of community is through its design, which Schubert says helps people stay in regular contact with each other.

“We design our community so that people might naturally bump into each other—like all the mailboxes are in one place, there are a lot of windows for line of sight, and most everybody’s back door goes out into the courtyard,” she says. “It’s a combination of our therapists bringing people together and then our design supporting those connections. Some people don’t need a lot of connection and they feel satisfied, and other people need lots of connection, and the nice thing is, there are gradations of connection for your health and well-being.”

Bridge Meadows also contributes to the financial well-being of middle income seniors by really evaluating what amenities are important to offer. While Schubert says the organization has wrestled with the idea of providing things like an exercise room and a pool, the best option for residents has been to use funds on community-strengthening amenities within the buildings, while still building the communities close enough that people can easily access these activities in the neighborhood.

In order to build a similar community, Schubert says these tough questions need to be considered—and sometimes outside help is necessary to find answers that will provide the best options to keep costs down, while bringing people of different generations and backgrounds together in one community.

“Be clear about what you are an expert about and gather experts in areas where you are not,” Schubert says. “Then recognize that you are asking people to come together intentionally, and they will need some support to do so. You cannot put 3 generations together in typical housing and say, ‘Oh, they’ll be fine, they’ll connect together.’ They need support to do so. They need us to come alongside to guide and nurture the development of connection.”

Built-In Volunteerism

Since 1965, 2Life Communities has been providing affordable housing to seniors in the Greater Boston area who qualify based on income. Since its first building opened almost 5 decades ago, the organization has grown dramatically, with 1,300 apartments spread across 4 campuses—and new buildings opening in the next few years that will bring the total to about 1,600 units.

In addition to providing affordable housing, 2Life Communities also offers a wide array of services that are managed by resident service coordinators—from assistance getting food stamps and other vital benefits to lifelong learning programs, concerts, and exercise classes.

“There’s something going on every day, all day, everywhere, because we believe you have to have enough different kinds of things that everyone finds their way into community,” says Amy Schectman, CEO at 2Life Communities. “Everyone on our staff is trained to foster, support, encourage, facilitate, and nurture community. That’s the core of who we are.”

And now the organization has plans to expand that core by applying its model to middle-income seniors, which will give the organization an opportunity to meet the community and care needs of people who have relatively few affordable options—particularly when they need to balance living expenses with medical care.

“We like to say that frailty compromises affordability. You may be able to afford to stay in your home until you need care—and the minute you need care, that’s when you need to make a move. We like to see people move into senior living and choose to age in community before that happens,” says Elise Selinger, real estate innovation manager at 2Life Communities.

“We’re developing a model where care can come to you in your apartment, especially non-medical or custodial care—eating, bathing, dressing,” says Selinger. “We don’t think you should have to move out of your apartment to get assistance with those needs. It’s important that they be able to come to you, first, and second, that they be affordable.”

In order to accomplish this, 2Life Communities is developing a program called OPUS, which will provide a dynamic, supportive environment where residents each contribute to the values-driven community in some way for an agreed-upon number of hours per month. By helping each other, seniors in these units will not only have a chance to connect with one another, but also help their budgets. The idea is that 2Life Communities will not need to hire staff in certain areas, thus keeping overhead down. For example, instead of hiring a lifelong learning coordinator to create education programs for the community, a resident with a teaching background may volunteer to take on that role and use their knowledge of their peers to create programs that are relevant for everyone.

2Life Communities photo
2Life Communities is working on a model to provide a supportive environment where residents contribute an agreed-upon number of volunteer hours per month. Photo courtesy of 2Life Communities.

 

Schectman likens the concept to a symphony: While listening to one musician play her instrument may be enjoyable, a piece of music does not truly come to life and have depth until all of the musicians combine their efforts to play their instruments together.

“Our communities are opus communities because we’re going take everyone’s ability and support them to create their own personal opus, or personal masterpiece, and weave them together in a community

that brings the best of everyone to create a magnum opus,” Schectman says.

And like a symphony conductor, Schectman says, anyone who wants to create a similar type of community needs to carefully structure each element of it to give residents what they need most.

“Be very strategic about what are the most important things,” she says. “You can’t have everything, so I would say don’t try and model it on the high-end fancy places; model it on who people are and what they really value.”


Podcast: Housing and Services for the Middle Market

Amy Schectman and Elise Selinger of 2Life Communities are featured, along with several other members, in an interesting podcast on serving the middle market, published in the September-October 2019 LeadingAge magazine.

Listen to the podcast on LeadingAge.org or at SoundCloud.


Villages

The Villages movement began in the early 2000s as an alternative to moving into a retirement community. For people who wanted to stay in the homes that they had lived in and loved for years, the Village model created geographically defined, self-governing, membership-based organizations that were run by volunteers to allow seniors to age at home in their own communities.

“What Villages provide is an affordable alternative to social, educational, and physical day-to-day resources and services to assist in the transition of aging,” says Barbara Hughes Sullivan, executive director of the Village to Village Network, a national association that provides resources for Villages, such as support services, webinars, peer-to-peer information, and advocacy services. “The Villages are also successfully combating social isolation by providing programs and an interaction within their membership—socials, potlucks, dinner groups, museum groups, affinity groups, [and] lectures. It’s engaging people as they age.”

In order to engage people and give them what they need, each Village has a board of directors, made up of members, who use the funds from dues to provide resources for the community. These might include social events that allow members to connect with each other on a regular basis, transportation back and forth to doctor’s appointments, light home maintenance, education programs, and friendly visitors for those who are homebound. As a result, these communities are attractive to seniors who want to thrive in their own homes—as well as those who want to help contribute to changing the way people treat the aging process.

“Baby boomers really grasp this now—they’re either the volunteers or they’re looking for this to be in place in 10 years when they’re getting older. They’re retiring, they’re looking for purpose and personal fulfillment, and things to do as they retire in their community, so it really appeals to them,” Sullivan says. “But also, what appeals to boomers is that they were the ones in the 1960s and 1970s that were the activists—they were [protesting] against the Vietnam War or [fighting] for civil rights, and now they’re leading the charge with the culture change of aging.”

People who want to start their own Villages can get together with groups of neighbors and friends to discuss what they need to stay in their community as they age, and what services are available to help them accomplish this goal. The Village to Village Network can guide them in developing and running this kind of community.

Is Cohousing an Option for Providers?

Cohousing refers to a small-neighborhood design that relies on collaborative decision-making for people who want to live in a community of like-minded people. Though the concept is popular among people of all ages, the model might easily be adaptable for older adult living.

“It’s a version of independent senior living when you get down to it,” says Karin Hoskin, executive director of The Cohousing Association of the United States. “The difference with senior cohousing is the intentionality of really knowing your neighbors, supporting each other, and sharing resources. Everybody knows each other. If anybody needs something they just ask, or even if they don’t ask, somebody will offer—but it’s not so small that you’re all up in everybody’s business.”

To build this kind of connection among neighbors, each cohousing community has a common house where members meet regularly to socialize and discuss issues that come up. In addition, people in a cohousing community share certain resources, such as lawn mowers, tools, and even vehicles, which allows them to save money by not duplicating items in every home that can be shared. Also, when people live in intergenerational cohousing communities, they may be able to help each other with things like child care and carpooling and assist senior members who may need help with transportation and getting meals if they are sick.

In order to get a cohousing community started, people generally come together and discuss what they want their community to look like and begin the process of planning—which involves hiring an architect or developer to bring the idea to fruition. During the years it takes for the homes to be built, people are already getting to know each other and building the community as they jointly make decisions about things like how many guest rooms and what kind of furniture the common house will have, and how many hours members will contribute each month to helping each other.

“Part of that process also is that people who are coming together start to build a sense of community even before the physical structure by having those meetings and being involved in the planning,” says Anne Glass, professor and gerontology program coordinator at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and owner of the resource site Elder Cohousing.

Kenya McCullum is a writer who lives in San Francisco, CA.