By Jack Cumming

My heart has always been with the misfits. Perhaps it’s because for the first 12 years of my life, I was solidly a misfit. Three months after my birth, my family moved to a newly built home in a clannish neighborhood.

As it turned out, we weren’t expected or acceptable there. Why is that relevant here? What matters is that the folks who lived there didn’t want folks like us. The result was that I had no near playmates as a child and spent most of my free time alone.

Have You Ever Been Lonely?

That’s likely why the “misfits” in senior living attract my attention. They are the people who may have an insecure laugh, those who quietly keep to themselves, or those who seem more interested in staff matters than management considers appropriate. They may never be noticed, or they may be seen as nuisances. They are mostly lonely.

Not long ago, a new resident couple in a CCRC with which I’m familiar moved out just a few short months after moving in. Of course, it cost them dearly since their entrance fee investment took a haircut, not to mention the cost and upset of moving their household and its belongings. Their quiet reason for leaving so soon. “We don’t fit in.”

An event like that should be a clarion call to concern and action for life enrichment directors, resident leaders, and management alike. If meeting the social determinants of health is a major justification for the senior living industry, then the failure to make people feel welcome and to find a home is a major red flag.

Social Hierarchy or Community?

That’s not what happens though. The tendency is to blame the leavers for not making the social engagement connections that come so easily to those who do “fit in.” For the most part, those who don’t understand the pain that drives people to leave are the extroverts who think nothing of asking for special treatment and getting it.

These easy-living folks find their social circle early on, and they have little use for those who are loners. They may even imagine that the loners are the way they are because that is what makes them happy.

That may be the case for many. There are many people who are content in their solitude and who are less needy of conversation and social stimulation. But there are also many who are often overlooked by life enrichment leaders, many of whom are themselves socially at ease — extroverts, if you will — and who have little sympathy for those who are not.

Dining Is Central 

What can be done to be sure that everyone belongs? Dining is central to senior living and connection, so there should be communal tables where all are welcome without prearranged reservations or dining companions. A dining situation that depends on reservations, or that only seats preformed groups together while others are relegated to “losers’” tables, is a failed dining experience for those most in need of acceptance.

Dr. Bill Thomas and his wife, Jude Thomas, developed the core Eden Alternative principles, identifying the importance of loving companionship and meaningful activity and the need to eliminate the “three plagues” of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom. Astonishingly, these principles are not universal throughout senior living. Part of the reason is the often detached relationship of staff to residents, which can leave some residents overlooked or disdained.

Systematic Effort

What can be done to reverse this invisibility of neediness? Let’s begin with a systematic effort to be sure that everyone’s social needs are understood and addressed. It may mean an “everyone’s welcome” table at meals. It may mean affinity activities beyond the entertainment activities that are popular and commonplace. Many loners are simply deeper thinkers.

It also helps to give people resident friends before they move in. Some CCRCs have resident “sponsors” for everyone on the waiting list. That can bond people early on to their future homes. It also assures that new arrivals already have friends before they move in.

Fulfilling the Promise

But new residents are not the only ones who need to feel welcome. It’s often overlooked that many longer-term residents have lost their friends and are at sea without the connections that previously gave meaning to their lives. They may have lost a spouse. Or they may have lost a close friend whom they met at move-in and who has been a reliable companion over many years.

Death is a constant reality in senior living. Moreover, in standard contract entrance-fee communities, from a business perspective, long-term residents can seem more like a financial drain than the longevity success they represent. After all, market-based senior living is as much a business as it is a safe haven for those who are aging. It need not be death, though. Many losses accompany advanced aging. Longer-term, older residents may no longer be as hale and hearty as those vigorous new residents. They may even be a bit daft.

But the anticipation of these functional losses is the lure that attracts people to a care community in the first place. They are as essential a part of the mission as is any other aspect of the life enriched living style. How these more difficult residents are treated now is predictive of how we may be treated when our time comes.

The Promise Is the Purpose

It takes compassion, perspective, and vision to fulfill the senior living promise. It’s sad when someone leaves because they “don’t fit in,” because they “no longer belong,” or because they have “outlived their value to the community.” It’s time to re-energize and regenerate life enrichment to ensure that mission and value take precedence.

If we go deep, life enrichment is more than just a senior living function. The sole purpose and justification for any senior living enterprise are to enrich lives. Without fully resident-responsive, universally engaging life enrichment, senior living becomes little more than a stylish charade.