Senior Living Bridges the Generation Gap

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Aurora Health & Wellness Center at Norterre

Building communities exclusively for residents 55 and up remains the dominant approach to senior housing. Nevertheless, a small yet noteworthy group of communities is countering the trend, inspired by the idea that multigenerational communities offer benefits to developers, residents, municipalities and operators alike.

Esther Greenhouse

“Why segregate by age? Is multigenerational living really something new?” said Esther Greenhouse, an environmental gerontologist, lecturer in Cornell University’s Department of Design and Environmental Analysis and industry fellow at the Cornell Institute for Healthy Futures. “The answer is emphatically ‘no’.” Even though multigenerational projects are still scarce, the mindset is changing. “It is exciting to see that developers are beginning to think multigenerationally,” she said.

Greenhouse contends that multigenerational living expands the pool of potential residents and forms bonds among people of different ages. Its design means that residents are not forced to leave when they reach a certain stage of life.

Rapid demographic changes are encouraging a multigenerational approach, as well. Experts point out that Baby Boomers will comprise about half of the nation’s senior cohort by 2020 and the entire senior population by 2030. “Baby Boomers have higher expectations for what they want out of a residential community, desiring outdoor entertainment spaces, a variety of dining venues with chef-prepared meals, a diverse range of activities and cultural events, among not only their peers, but people of all ages,” said Action Pact CEO Steve Shields, a pioneer in the “household model” of senior living and nursing homes.

Bay State Beacon

The Laurel Exterior Rendering

Treehouse at Easthampton Meadow in Easthampton, Mass., is a $16 million mixed-income community for senior citizens and families with foster or pre-adoptive children, developed by Beacon Communities and the Treehouse Foundation in collaboration with the city of Easthampton. “Seniors want to live in a community of this sort where they will play an active role, working with youth, actively helping with homework. They act as grandparents and all that it entails,” said Beacon Communities CEO Pam Goodman.

Completed in 2015 after 13 years of development, Treehouse at Easthampton Meadow offers 48 one-bedroom cottages for residents 55 and older, six affordable townhomes for families and six market-rate townhomes. Its single-family component includes 33 energy-efficient homes, including nine designated as affordable for first-time buyers.

“This development allowed for multiple generations to live together in a new, affordable housing community,” said Thomas Farmer of MassHousing, the quasi-public Massachusetts agency that was one of the project’s funding sources. The largest benefit was that foster children would be able to live in a stable, caring environment with adult mentors of varying ages whose guidance and life experiences would have a highly positive impact on the lives of these children.”

Creating a community that can integrate seniors and younger residents is the mission of Norterre, an innovative new master-planned community in Liberty, Mo. A collaboration of Action Pact, Liberty Hospital and Healthy Living Centers of America, Norterre is a multigenerational health, wellness and residential neighborhood dedicated to the proposition that wellness is not a priority for seniors alone. It consists of three components: The Aurora, a 65,000-square-foot health and wellness center; the Estoria, which offers 20 long-term-care residences and 40 short-term suites for people of any age who are undergoing rehabilitation, and also provides retail, child care and healthy dining options; and the Laurel, which includes 60 assisted living residences, 20 of them dedicated to memory support.

“We couldn’t stand by and create the same senior living community over and over again, which I’ll admit would be a lot easier,” Shields explained. “We like to describe Norterre as a community for people of all ages, as the word ‘multigenerational’ might give the impression that people are living in one community, but are still segregated by generations.”

Designing for Success

Laurel at Norterre Living Room

Shields explained that designing a community for all ages is complex, in large part because it requires a variety of housing options distributed among multiple buildings. “As opposed to a one-size-fits all (approach), we have taken strides to ensure we not only offer unique floorplans, but provide useful, intricate housing that suits the individual needs of the people who live there,” he said.

Experts say this is the key to designing for multiple generations, yet developers need not necessarily provide specialized amenities or include assisted living units in their communities, Greenhouse contends. “If they just offer a range of housing options—from apartments to single-family homes or duplexes, that are properly designed for the lifespan and ability continuum, they could keep residents for longer or even attract new ones,” Greenhouse said.

She emphasizes that designing successful multigenerational communities requires attention to nuance that planners sometimes miss. “In general, most communities miss important design elements because there is a lack of understanding of the extent to which the built environment can enable or disable, and even experienced design teams may not be completely well versed in the physical, psychological and behavioral changes which significantly begin to be present beginning in the 40s,” she explained.

The primary goal of these projects—helping people of all ages interact and build a community—is also the most challenging part of creating them. “Someone’s got to act as a facilitator, to help the integration,” Goodman said. “I don’t view it so much as a development challenge as a management challenge. If you really want to create a community, that doesn’t always happen organically and so someone’s got to be out there, helping to make things happen.”

Enabling multigenerational communities to reach their potential also requires the operator to implement the right tools. Norterre helps resolve communication through regular meetings that offer forums for community leaders to share ideas, air concerns and develop solutions, Shields noted, and a custom technology platform helps integrate residents and services.

Images courtesy of Norterre and Bruce T. Martin Photography

You’ll find more on this topic in the June 2018 issue of MHN.