Am I just a dreamer and that my assumption that residents still want to give, want to teach and learn wrong?

I wander around the world of senior living, talking to many, many people and listening to people’s stories and ideas. A few days ago I got a chance to spend some time with David Freshwater, the Chairman of Watermark Retirement Communities.

Watermark has this very unique approach to life enrichment. They have labeled it Watermark University and it is based on the idea that seniors living in their communities are not yet done living. They have new friends to make, new things to learn and abilities to give to others. This is a philosophy I embrace 100% and I believe will attract younger residents and extend longevity.

The way it works is that rather than leading various activities, the life enrichment coordinator recruits, residents, family members and staff to teach classes for the residents.  Some examples:

  • The art class with nude models I wrote about a few weeks ago.
  • A Chinese cooking class by one of the kitchen staff
  • How to look at stage plays through the eyes of a professional critic (a resident who retired from reviewing plays for a major newspaper).

Making It Work or Not

David says this concept works well in some communities and is much more difficult in others. They find a fair amount of resistance from residents who say, “I am already paying you a lot of money and now you want me to volunteer?”

He did add that once the program gets going residents find it gives them new energy and new purpose. He also noted that it is not something that is particularly a cost saving to the community. Rather it is a shift in what the life enrichment director does.

So the question then becomes this:  Am I just a dreamer? Are my assumption that residents still want to give, and want to teach and learn wrong? 

Yes and No

I think the answer is both yes and no. Here is why:

  • When residents move into senior living communities, what we sell and lead them to believe about these communities is that they will never need to lift a finger to do anything. In fact, they won’t really even be allowed to lift a finger to do anything. This means if they are asked to teach a class, it is a startling paradigm shift that takes some getting used to.
  • Maybe we need to be selling something different than we currently are. I stayed in the Ritz Carlson a couple of weeks ago and, if after I had checked in, they told me I had to wash my own dishes I would have been startled then mad. But if washing our own dishes were always a part of the Ritz experience, it would have instead been a cool and unusual thing.
  • Most sobering of all . . . maybe because we use a cruise ship/luxury hotel metaphor in selling our product we are mostly only attracting a selfish, self-centered subset of elders. This would likely be the same ones turn into Mean Girls as recently described in the New York Times.

I really applaud what Watermark University represents. It is the right thing to do for residents and I believe it will attract a younger higher quality group of residents, who will have less depression and dementia and who will have longer lengths of stay. I believe in their marketplaces, it will attract residents that would otherwise never be attracted to a cruise ship style community.

Steve Moran