By Jack Cumming

If it weren’t for all the old people, would you want to live in a senior living community? With friends at hand, fun things to do, fitness equipment, meals taken care of, and care available when and as needed?

Imagine as a parent that there was childcare right at hand, even when a youngster is ill or needs homeschooling. Imagine that, when you just want to crash for the night, your spouse could find friends to spend time with. Imagine, too, that there was primary care available onsite, when you need it, whenever you need it. That would be utopian. But just maybe some entrepreneur will make it happen. Imagine that.

By dropping age-restrictions, we can create an attractive living model for all ages, and restore the sense of belonging from the villages memorialized in the lithographs of Currier and Ives.

Utopias

Do you remember how school lessons and assignments always seemed far less interesting than distractions? That’s what happened to me the other day when I was preparing to attend a LeadingAge session on COVID-19. At the same time, another organization was offering a Zoom session on utopias presented by Michael Robertson, who is the author of a book on historical and current utopias. You can guess what my choice was. The title of this article gives it away.

Mr. Robertson is what I call a social utopian. The Marxian concept of “from each according to ability; to each according to need” is his idea of utopia. One of the interesting observations he made is that there are more than 700 continuing “hippy” communes still operating in the United States. Today, they prefer the term “intentional communities”. Many have a religious commonality, and a few have operated for over 50 years.

Can a Utopia Be Profitable?

When it came time for questions, I asked him if he thought that the way that Amazon entrepreneur Jeff Bezos had disrupted the retailing industry for the benefit of consumers was utopian. He laughed and said that’s not the kind of utopia he had in mind. Later that day, now following duty by visiting the LeadingAge exhibit hall, I was in an instant messaging “conversation” with an exhibitor friend. He wanted to know what LeadingAge sessions I was finding valuable, and I confessed my defection earlier to the utopian session in lieu of the COVID presentation. I then asked him if he thought that a Continuing Care Retirement Community was utopian. Just as Mr. Robertson had responded to my earlier question, my friend responded with laughter. He added that that’s not what he thinks of as a utopia.

I believe that business innovation to improve the lives of Americans can give practical reality to what otherwise might seem to be utopian. My experience of entrepreneurs is that there is a large strain of idealism that runs through the convictions of the best of them. Idealism is right up there alongside the practical reality that a business must show a profit to survive. Jeff Bezos and Mark Cuban, for instance, voice strong ethical convictions; Elon Musk shows idealism in his commitment to the environment and space exploration; I’m not as sure about some others who are best left unnamed.

Senior Living as Utopian

This year of challenge and pandemic has dramatized some of the protections and conveniences which residents have in congregate living communities. Recently, Tiffany Harding of Ohio Masonic Homes, in speaking of her parents who continue to live on their own, artfully explained the benefits that congregate living provides. Those who have developed and operate senior living communities are well aware of these considerable benefits. The pushback has been from the lingering attachment to suburban single-family homes. Single-family homelife was considered ideal when World War II vets moved into Levittown. It’s much less ideal when loneliness sets in after the loss of a spouse or when services are needed that are hard to access in an isolated living unit, which is what a house can become.

Congregate living can bring convenience and protection not only to the very old but also to people of all ages. This may seem utopian. Still, it’s not hard to imagine a congregate living community that welcomes people of all ages and makes available to them services that are responsive to their needs. Supportive needs begin with infant and childcare, including sick childcare. Given a large enough community, a specialized onsite provider, leasing space from the operator, can respond to this need. Moreover, for the children, as they grow and want friends, friends are right at hand. No need to be driven to a play date.

From that beginning, picture similarly responsive services extending to people of all ages. Of course, as people age, specialized providers will be eager to meet their needs. The cycle of life is such that the care and assistance that infants and young children require is needed again for those whom age has rendered frail and failing. These services need not be provided by the developer or by the community manager. Facilities can be leased out to specialists who have the capacity to meet specific needs.

Relationship Healthcare

Moreover, primary care can also be brought onsite. As onsite physicians and other healthcare providers get to know the resident population beyond the sterility of an office visit, the reactive medicine of today can morph into the emerging model of relationship medicine. Experience with the narrowly authorized Programs of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) demonstrates that relationship medicine lowers cost and improves satisfaction.

More promising, and more immediately attractive, are the lifestyle and life amenity conveniences that can reduce the challenges and hassles of everyday living. One can think of onsite co-working areas, onsite co-living experiences, onsite dining opportunities, and more. These are conveniences that the modern two-earner family needs.

The biggest benefit, however, that can result from such a “utopian” congregate living model comes from the sense of belonging in a place “where everybody knows your name”. The market opportunity is huge if a simplified co-living concept takes off. There are fortunes to be made. By dropping age-restrictions, and adapting the services provided to the naturally occurring needs of all ages, when and as they develop, it’s possible to return to the village living model that existed for generations and centuries before industrialization urbanized our lives.

A link to Tiffany Harding’s experience is located here.