By Jack Cumming

“Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name,” – Cheers Theme

This article builds on an earlier article questioning whether legalized age-segregation is essential, or even desirable, for senior living communities. It’s a simple truth that more people are looking for homes than those who are looking for age-segregated homes. In addition, no one I’ve met wants to feel that they are pathetic due to age-related “distress” as the IRS Revenue Ruling 72-124 would have it in justifying tax exemption for senior housing.

Our Changing Lives

The 20th-century concept of ideal living was a single-family home, dependent on the automobile for shopping, commuting, and other daily interactions. Life in the 21st is more harried with two-income families, work from home, childcare worries, aging parents, and constant smartphone connectivity. There’s opportunity in these developments.

One of my heroes is Harry Truman, who was not afraid to tell it straight without guile or deception. He also was not afraid to take responsibility. The sign on his desk read, “The buck stops here.” Those are sentiments that we rarely hear today in an era of branding and public relations spin.

Truman liked to quote Jefferson, who said, “You know as long as a country is one of [independent farmers], people are more independent and make better citizens . . . Every farmer thinks he’s as good as the President or perhaps a little bit better.” Truman reflected the rural pastoral life of the 19th century into which he was born and during which he grew to adulthood. Truman was, at root, a farmer.

Village Appeal

Farmers participated in governance in nearby villages. That’s where they shopped; found fellowship in church; and gained the stature that gave meaning to life. Today, we romanticize the presumed simplicity of that earlier era. In truth, it could be a tough life. Still, that dream of community is one that we can create for the 21st century with amenities to simplify our demanding, modern lives. We might call it Family Village Living. Today’s integrated senior living, providing a bundle of services on-site, can be a beginning on that dream for better living.

Senior living typically includes food service, apartment or cottage living, fitness and other activities, and a modicum of health services all on-site. Residents generally still have to go to a doctor’s office for “visits” but support for frailty and cognitive decline are on-site in the community, often for an added charge. But, senior living suffers from the taint of being for the old. And many people, even people of great age, don’t like to think of themselves as old.

Are Our Ideas of Aging Archaic?

Not only does senior living emphasize age as needy, but it is age-restricted, segregating its residents from living with younger people. The justification for tax exemption for nonprofit senior living communities is that age “as a class” – to cite IRS Revenue Ruling 72-124 – is “distressing.” The premise is that old people need compassion since they can no longer fend for themselves.

But that’s no longer true if ever it was. In the 2020 Presidential election, the nation is calling on the very old to lead the country for the next four to eight years. Trump is 74 and Biden is 78. Eight years from now, Trump will be 82 and Biden will be 86. They’re age-eligible to live in senior living communities, but they prefer the White House.

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Opportunity Through New Thinking

Thus, it may be time for developers and operators to seize the market opportunity beyond age-segregated housing and to evolve and expand the integrated services model of home to appeal to people of all ages. Imagine an all-inclusive, communal living environment designed for all ages with social opportunities for young adults, childcare (with sick childcare) for young families, lock-the-door-and-travel convenience for empty-nesters, adult care for oldsters, and village-style services for all.

Like living in a village, having services at hand would make life easier and avoid the taint that we ascribe to old age. Also, like a naturally occurring village, no operator need provide all the services. In the hotel business, the Kelleys, who are known for the Outrigger hotels of Waikiki, adopted the principle that they were hoteliers and not food purveyors. They built their hotels with restaurant facilities that they then leased to professional restaurant operators.

That’s the model that can disrupt age-restricted senior living to give us an all-inclusive family village living for people of all ages. Include on-site, or adjacent, targeted facilities to lease to enterprising businesspeople so that a full panoply of needed services ranging from food to primary healthcare is available without hassle. Membership models can then be devised to give preferred access to community residents.

Would a Family Village Catch On?

We can’t foresee how popular such a living model might be. We can’t know, until we try, whether carefree integrated living would require a center city urban concept or could be extended to a cottage model as some senior living communities provide today. The attraction of carefree living for people of all ages seems evident. Less evident, though, is whether it will evolve or not. If it does evolve, will it simply develop as a living choice that slowly gains popularity? Or will there be a disruptive enterprise that breaks out with a new living model suited to 21st-century lifestyle values and ecological concerns?

In the next article in this series, we consider industries that have the resources to be able to disrupt senior living with a less age-directed, more inclusive housing offerings. Our conclusion will be that such dramatic disruption seems unlikely, though it’s instructive to consider why. Nevertheless, some wise developers and operators may begin to test the market with innovative offerings.

We already see evidence of that change in the growing popularity for developers and operators to partner with OLLIE Co-living. How that may impact senior living will be our next focus.