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Convivium in Senior Living

“What if everything you’ve been told about aging is wrong? Our culture tells us that aging will change us against our will, and for the worse. But, internationally acclaimed longevity expert Dr. Bill Thomas argues that this is false. Blending myth and science, live music and visuals, Dr. Bill Thomas’ ChangingAging Tour is a modern-day American Chautauqua barnstorming the country in a rock n’ roll tour bus, to bring communities a new and highly disruptive understanding of aging.”

Instead of institutional nursing home Dr. Thomas envisions collectives of very small houses connected to a commons within existing residential neighborhoods, where elders can live together affordably, with privacy, intimacy and autonomy.

If you have the time, watch this 6-minute YouTube video where visionary gerontologist Dr. Bill Thomas describes belonging to a loving community where 10-12 elders are looking out for each other and each have both private space and a common house where they come together for food – Convivium.

There are now more than 231 Green House Project homes in operation or development across 32 states.

I first became aware of Dr. Bill Thomas through his 2004 book What are Old People For? He has been studying and working for over 20 years to provide alternative housing for seniors that address three problems: loneliness, helplessness and boredom. “Institutions do a poor job at creating well-being, fostering happiness, independence and dignity.” He wants elders to experience the joy of living; to know what it’s like to be cherished and to cherish others; to feel connected.

This year (2017) Dr. Thomas joined Holiday Retirement as the company’s Chief Wellness Officer. Locally in Redding CA, Holiday Retirement offers two locations for fully independent senior living, mini-apartments: Shasta Estates and Hilltop Estates. Shasta Estates was built nine years ago and Hilltop Estates is 31 years old. Neither of these large facilities is what Dr. Thomas is describing in the video, but these are independent living apartments, not assisted living or nursing homes. He has already visited Redding and perhaps in time, his influence will be brought to bear on these institutions too.

Another unique independent living option for seniors is the community of Mountain Meadows, in Ashland, OR, consisting of 65 single-family homes and 160 condominiums plus a large common dining room, fitness center and club house. This development was started in 1996 and is now entirely owned and operated by the individual property owners. Each owner of a home/condo in Mountain Meadows pays monthly dues, which include a Dining Room charge and Meal Allowance as well as common area maintenance. Condominium dues vary with size of the residence plus MMOA dues are $553/mo. for a single occupant and $713/mo. for two persons.

Some retirees like the idea of comprehensive senior facilities that offer a full spectrum for aging-in-place from independent living, assisted care, alzheimer’s units to skilled nursing. You are probably aware of the variety of very large, multi-stage CCRCs (Continuing Care Retirement Communities), such as Sun City or Leisure World – many with elaborate golf clubs and community amenities for active seniors.

Pacific Retirement Services, with corporate offices based in Medford OR, has six types of senior housing in available in several care level combinations in 17 facilities in California and southern Oregon:

  1. Signature Communities – PRS’s exceptional, first class senior living at University Retirement Community in Davis, CA (with beautifully appointed cottages and apartment homes range from one-bedroom to three-bedroom-plus-bonus-room. All include full-service kitchens, high-quality appliances, and luxurious, modern finishes); and Rogue Valley Manor in Medford, OR (with more than 600 accommodations on 668 acres including homes that range from cozy one-bedroom apartments to spacious cottages and houses.}
  2. Life Plan Communities – such as Saratoga Retirement Community in Saratoga, CA; The Meadows of Napa Valley in Napa, CA. These require equity investments and provides residents with peace of mind and security for the future with a spectrum ranging from independent living cottages, assisted living, memory care, and skilled nursing and rehabilitation facilities. Saratoga has two Entrance Fee Plans (90% returnable) and a Traditional Entrance Fee Plan with prices starting as low as $252,000.
  3. Assisted Living – Facilities focused on maintaining as much independence as possible.
  4. Skilled Nursing & Rehabilitation – Medicare-certified programs for those in need of recovery, rehabilitation, or long-term nursing care.
  5. Memory Care – Facilities with specially trained staff, adaptive programs, and purposeful physical space.
  6. Community Housing – Affordable mobility-accessible, rental apartments (eligibility are set by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development) such as Sierra Vista in Yreka, CA; Donal E. Lewis Retirement Center in Ashland, OR; and numerous other locations in Oregon.

Most seniors say they prefer to stay in their single family detached home until they die, but the death of a spouse, the maintenance demands of home ownership, weariness of cooking, lack of mobility, loneliness, isolation, depression, lack of caregivers or family nearby, diminished personal safety, dementia, etc. may force them to reconsider their next home.

For those who are healthy enough to continue to live alone in their private detached home there are companies that offer in-home care assistance. Some cities have membership Villages – “nonprofit, grassroots organizations that are redefining aging by being a key resource to community members wishing to age in place. Villages are a social support network for their members that provide necessary services, (such as transportation, technology assistance, running errands to the pharmacy and grocery store), community engagement activities and other important resources crucial to aging interdependently. Find out more from the Village-to-Village Network. This map shows the location of membership Villages: the closest to Redding is in Ashland OR.

Changes in health often come unexpected in our senior years, so it is better to explore our options early, discuss these matters and plan ahead. Often there are waiting lists to get what you want.

Planning for downsizing means getting rid of things you may cherish, but your children don’t want. So it is best to weed out belongings while you still have good mental and physical capacity and before a crisis forces a move.

A recent report published in Caring.com ranks California #7 overall as one of the best states to retire, but admonishes, “Seniors need to consider everything from affordability to quality healthcare access, long-term care options, a variety of senior care services, and overall quality of life.”

It may be a long time until Dr. Bill Thomas’s vision small common houses are a reality locally, but I like his positive perspective “changing the narrative about aging” and his hope in creating a more convivial future for seniors than institutions.

What is your next home?