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Making the case for aging in community at the ASA conference

Posted: March 26, 2014

I attended a wonderful American Society on Aging conference.  I learned many things and reinforced my knowledge of other areas.  At the session I co-led with Ruth Palombo from the Tufts Health Foundation, we asked attendees to offer their suggestion on what we presented as a conundrum for professionals in our field: 

  • On the one hand, we pride ourselves on listening and responding to what older adults want and overwhelmingly they say they want to “age in place”—meaning to remain in their (mostly) single family homes for the remainder of their lives.
  • On the other hand, as professionals we have access to facts and data that unquestionably prove that senior housing is the best option for maintaining health and well being. 

Given that the facts and feelings diverge and that people make personal decisions based on feelings, what’s our role as professionals in pushing for what people say they don’t want?

We got many interesting suggestions:

Marketing Senior Housing

  • Don’t cite statistics when talking to seniors.  Rather, try to present information about all the options to demonstrate that they have choice—and be broad in offering a wide range of options including unconventional ones--and hope that by hearing the facts about all choices (including remaining in single family home), they will opt for senior housing.  Essentially, help them comparison shop in a truthful manner.
  • Ask a lot of questions about their current lifestyle.  Find out what they do daily, for entertainment, travel plans and experiences, friends, hobbies—start with THEIR facts and be honest in what you can offer relative to their interests and abilities.
  • Get people IN the door.  Have open houses.  See if doctors and other caregivers who might be prone to weigh facts can buy into your model and have them advise clients.
  • Print materials should all have photos of seniors in action.
  • Have conversations early and frequently—it’s never too early to begin planning for one’s future—educate young people about options and outcomes!
  • Emphasize how significant it is that in senior housing someone is always looking out for you—if you fall, someone will know and be able to help.  If you start exhibiting signs of losing weight or depression, someone will notice and reach out.

Barriers to senior housing attractiveness

  • Senior housing is perceived as failure.  With “aging in place” being touted as the gold standard, people feel sense of defeat in choosing senior housing.
  • Affordability for middle class seniors.  Although there’s not enough subsidized housing for low-income seniors, there’s even less high quality, supportive housing for those with only slightly higher incomes than qualify for subsidies.
  • People equate senior housing with nursing homes.  Must make concerted effort to educate people about differences.

Qualities that would be attractive to future seniors

  • Programs that offer a wide variety of ways for residents to engage—music, art, intellectual, games, physical activities, volunteering, etc.—so that there’s a way for everyone to find their place.
  • Safe walking opportunities—inside and outside.
  • Lots of social spaces, of different sizes, all warmly appointed and welcoming.
  • Options for dining on site.
  • Medical services available on site.
  • Places for children to stay when they visit, caregivers to be (since apartments are likely to be small).
  • Affinity housing for all sorts of specialized interests.

And overarching all of this, the imperative to gain more facts to bolster our case.  We should have a study comparing outcomes for people who age alone versus those who age in community.

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