By Jack Cumming

It’s rare that a senior living leader elevates a resident for praise. That happened recently. I don’t want to embarrass the CEO by naming him (it was a he). Moreover, this is about how rare this is, not about the exemplary character of a single person. He knows who he is.

An Industrious Resident

The story this CEO posted on LinkedIn was about an entrepreneurial 85-year-old who had just started his sixth enterprise after selling the other five to Fortune 500 behemoths. His point is that many residents aren’t ready for the “retirement” scrap heap. Just as most senior living employees find purpose in their work, many residents still seek purpose and engagement in the larger world beyond the campus boundaries.

Reflecting on the common usage of “retirement” as a time of nothingness, the CEO called for senior living to inspire resident empowerment. The article concluded: “Do you know anyone looking forward to ‘receding, falling back, withdrawing …?’ Neither do I.” As a resident, I can add my voice to this enlightened CEO’s. Neither do I.

Space Safe From Residents

More common is a remark heard during a recent LeadingAge internet broadcast. The topic was how to relieve stress among staff members. A listener asked whether the presenting provider “sets boundaries for residents to create a safe space for staff.”

The answer, if you’re curious, was to give staff meditation time away from duties and residents and to set aside space in the break room for mindfulness, perhaps, with chocolate on hand. Though not mentioned by the participants on the broadcast, residents, too, could benefit from such an indulgent hideaway where they could be safe from staff scrutiny.

If we take a closer look at how almost all not-for-profit senior living enterprises are governed, we find an explicit exclusion of residents as capable of self-determination. The legalities can get very technical, so we’ll skip them here, but if you’re interested in legal machinations, click here.

Opportunity Is Waiting

Our culture is changing. Not only are we living longer, but we are also remaining energetic and vital longer. The period of age-related dependency is shrinking. In short, life is longer and filled with vitality. Like our featured resident entrepreneur, some CCRC residents are founding companies … or engaging in politics … or advocating for a better world.

Senior living will have to change too, or it will become irrelevant except for those who are failing. People of all ages are ready and willing to embrace the all-inclusive model that is the best of senior living. The industry, though, has to have the resilience to meet them where they are. For now, moving to senior living means putting the label “old” right up front on anyone who accepts the pitch.

The emerging concepts of youth — coliving, coworking, cohousing, and more — appeal not only to the young but to the old as well. Most of the young people now attracted to the simplicity of coliving (tiny apartments, socializing public areas, and convenience services) are single people just entering the workforce. The same attributes can appeal to older people who are solo agers and who still want meaning in their lives. Standby care in case something goes wrong can be another on-premises but outsourced community service.

You First

We began this article with the tale of a CEO who gets it. He and his associates may even be the progenitors who break all the rules and open the senior living window to let fresh air in. Surely the time is coming, and may be now, when the window of opportunity brings a new concept to how Americans live.

In my imagination, I picture a new, nationwide housing and services enterprise, with messaging emphasizing “residents first” or, more colloquially, “you first.”