By Jack Cumming

It was my very good fortune to have as my freshman physics lecturer John Archibald Wheeler, one of the great minds of the 20th century. As an aside, he ended his days as a resident at Meadow Lakes, then a Presbyterian CCRC, now part of Springpoint.

Although I also took freshman calculus, it was Wheeler’s mathematically grounded physics lectures that brought calculus to life. Wheeler is best known for his central role in developing both the atomic and hydrogen bombs.

Love of Ideas

I’ve always preferred the practical to the theoretical. Many who are attracted to mathematics per se love the perfection of mathematical theory, where there’s almost always a right answer instead of the ambiguity with which other academic disciplines, including physics, are imbued.

The small circle of physicists including Wheeler — men and women — who came together in the 1930s as collaborators — perhaps a dozen in all — were not chosen to fill positions. They were drawn together by respect for the power of their thinking which they shared. It was a circle of geniuses.

Wheeler loved the world of ideas and the thinker’s quest for understanding and progress, as he details in his memoir. As such, in the world of his colleagues, it was the shared search that brought them together as friends. Just as theory perfects pragmatics in the world of the mind, so can imagination perfect power in the world of human organization. The trouble, in both cases, is the lack of perfection in how ambitious people view their own “genius.” Ego is a powerful inhibiting force.

On page 203 of his memoir, Wheeler shares a personal insight from which we all can learn:

In fact, as I got older, I concluded that I could learn only by teaching. Universities have students, I like to say, to teach the professors.

If you can’t explain your reasoning so that a person of ordinary intelligence can understand it, you probably have failed to think it through. Of course, there are those for whom a condescending style is compelling. Making the complex simple and easy to grasp is not the same as acting with a supercilious air of positional superiority and authority.

Boss Masters

Wheeler goes on to describe his living arrangement during a short stay at the Institute for Advanced Study. Employers can learn from what he relates:

I took a rented room in the home of a laborer …. My landlord was so abusive to his wife that he felt called upon to explain himself to me. “That’s the way my boss treats me,” he said. “So I treat her the way my boss treats me. Otherwise I’d go crazy.”

When leaders deflect onto others responsibility for their own missteps, they set off a chain reaction that can have atomic-like personal repercussions.

What’s the difference between the working life of the abusive “laborer” and that of Wheeler and his colleagues who came together to develop the atomic bomb? Their collaboration ended World War II and has inhibited mass warfare ever since. The difference was that they were gathered together in pursuit of a cause. As Wheeler puts it:

Yet one cannot escape the conclusion that an atomic bomb program started a year earlier and concluded a year sooner would have spared 15 million lives, my brother Joe’s among them.

Finding a Cause

Why isn’t senior living seen more as a cause that goes beyond power and hierarchy? The power of the Village Movement is that people come together among themselves to give their years of aging a better course with better outcomes. As senior living yields its top-down executive control model to a resident empowerment model with professional support services, providers may recover from the shrinking market share of recent years and return to the CCRC popularity of a few years ago.

Think of what old age could be if senior housing involved less top-down hierarchical control and more grassroots striving together for lifelong meaning and purpose.

  • If HIPAA inhibits better living for seniors, then it’s time either to change our laws or to qualify pertinent residents as privy to HIPAA-protected information.
  • If contracts have been so fashioned to favor business interests that consumer attorneys advise against anyone accepting them, let’s get fair contracts and avoid liability by delivering top-notch performance.
  • If residents and prospects are looking for a safe haven without burdening families or others, then let’s accept, contractually, fiduciary responsibility and provide the resident advocates to make that possible and realistic.

With a little imagination, and with a lot of ego forbearance, we can help America’s seniors to age better either collectively or in solitude according to their preferences. Let’s meet those who are aging in America where they want to live, and let’s treat them with the respect and dignity that they expect.

Is it possible for senior living executives and residents to join together in a common cause to make old age the best years of our lives? Together in one organization, united in one cause, residents and providers together can be so much more than we are divided. Imagine a small group of collaborating people — drawn together because of the cogency of their thinking — who reinvent aging processes, producing a work product to guide the senior living industry into the 21st century.

John Wheeler was a CCRC resident. One can’t help but think of how much his intellect might have brought to senior living if he had been allowed to contribute. There are brilliant residents, and there are brilliant provider executives. Can we bring them together — say a dozen altogether — to rethink senior living, perhaps producing a book in the process? Can we commit to collaborate sooner rather than later as Wheeler wishes that he and his colleagues might have done to have ended World War II sooner to save lives? We can if we will.