3 Ways to Build Intergenerational Senior Living through Affinity Groups

Six trends are rocking intergenerational senior living, changing how operators deliver a lifestyle that is growing each day in popularity and product type. Last week, we looked at five of those trends, each of which are explored in deeper detail in the new Senior Housing News report, “The New Opportunity in Intergenerational Senior Living.”

The first five trends are:

  • Embracing the tenets of New Urbanism
  • Intergenerational is the new mixed-use
  • Lifelong aging-in-place
  • Building partnerships, even with competitors
  • Urban senior living… in reverse

The sixth trend is the only one of the bunch that comes with any bit of controversy, but it’s one that some senior living operators are embracing with success: the power of affinity groups.

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While creating senior communities rooted in values or customs based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, orientation or any other affinity group may seem controversial, antithetical to modern social norms or simply bad for business, it is an option that should be another tool in the operator’s tool box when pursuing intergenerational senior living.

“In my career, and in observatory research, not written research, Italians, Jews, Greeks — a lot of the European side — they tend to be a lot more comfortable with this kind of living situation,” Scott Eckstein told Senior Housing News.

Eckstein is a clinical assistant professor of the Institute for Senior Living at Washington State University, which trains students for careers in the sector.

“I think like-groups like to stay together,” he added. “We like to be multicultural, but the reality is that people (are) more comfortable with their own as they age, at least historically.”

Here are three methods in intergenerational senior living that operators can use to harness the power of affinity groups:

1. Take cues from geography

One of the affinity-centric communities that has caught Eckstein’s eye comes from Aegis Living. Earlier this year in February, the Bellevue, Washington-based operator opened Aegis Gardens at Newcastle in Newcastle, Washington — about 12 miles southeast of Seattle — to cater to the Northwest’s Chinese population.

The 131-unit assisted living and memory care community provides an Asian-inspired lifestyle, with a cultural center, a bilingual preschool on site and public lectures on topics such as Chinese medicine, longevity, Tai Chi and financial planning.

“We didn’t want to build an old folks’ home, or a typical assisted living or typical retirement home,” Dwyane Clark, chairman and CEO of Aegis Living, told Senior Housing News in March 2018 about Aegis Gardens. “We wanted to be the epicenter of Chinese life in the Northwest.”

The numbers support the move. Anchored by Portland in Oregon, Vancouver in British Columbia and Seattle, the region has nearly 600,000 people of Chinese descent. Built for $52 million, the five-story community is filling up, while the intergenerational mixed-use elements keep the residents in touch with the broader community.

“We have 48-year-olds coming to our lectures,” Clark said. “Because of that, our 83-year-old residents feel like they are mainstreamed into life. It doesn’t feel like an old folks’ home. It’s much more lively.”

As we noted, Aegis Gardens is rooted in both an affinity group and a geography: the U.S. Northwest and the surrounding area, including into Canada. Whether coincidental or not, this geographic benefit is in line with the results of a 2016 study from financial support blog SmartAsset.com.

The editors of that site compiled a list of the 10 best cities for multigenerational households, measuring five factors, including the percentage of households that are multigenerational and the number of children living with their grandparents in a three-generation household.

The results heavily favored the western portion of the country, with five cities from California and going no further east than Texas. Number 10 on the list was Seattle.

“Aegis Living has had tremendous success building these beautiful communities that are Asian-focused, mainly Chinese,” Eckstein says. “But you’ll see Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese as well. … So I think there is validity in that.”

Eckstein also notes his experience working in Europe, where he saw Brits, Germans and Belgians develop communities geared toward serving seniors of their respective nationalities.

“It’s a worldwide thing,” he says.

2. Seek to serve specific affinity groups, while welcoming others

Aegis Living let geography dictate its creation of Aegis Gardens. It also followed the needs of the Chinese community. For providers looking simply at the latter, a 2018 Pew Research Center study on multigenerational households gives a glimpse into which groups of people might be most accustomed to these living arrangements.

The study found that all racial and ethnic groups had more people in these households in 2016 than 2009, with Asian-Americans leading the way: 29% of that population lived in multigenerational households in 2016.

Poll from Pew Research Center on multigenerational living in the U.S. via race.

One group not listed on the Pew chart is the LGBTQ community. The Los Angeles LGBT Center has been a beacon for that city’s gay community since 1969, and in 2019, 50 years after its launch, it will add the next chapter in its story by unveiling the intergenerational Anita May Rosenstein Campus.

“Today’s vote marks an important milestone for our city and LGBT community,” Center CEO Lorri L. Jean said in a statement in December of 2016, when the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved the project.

“For nearly 50 years, our Center has been an important part of our city’s safety net, caring for, among others, LGBT seniors and youth—groups that desperately need our help,” she said in the statement. “The need for affordable housing in Los Angeles is particularly dire … which is precisely why the Center and this project enjoy so much support from the community and elected leaders.”

The Rosenstein campus is an example of a second approach to affinity-centric intergenerational senior living: seeking to serve one specific group while still welcoming others.

The campus will include 99 units of affordable senior housing and 100 beds for homeless youth. While there does not appear to be any stipulation about the orientation of residents (multiple attempts to reach the Los Angeles LGBT Center were unsuccessful), the organization lists on its website three goals for the campus, all of which revolve around providing care, support, safety, healing and other services for LGBT youth and LGBT seniors.

The third goal of the campus, for instance, is “health, happiness and wellness for LGBT people,” and highlights physical and mental health services that include help for people with or worried about HIV or AIDS, and “targeted programs for bisexual and lesbian and transgender people.” The senior residents will surely benefit from the intergenerational lifestyle, just as any intergenerational community’s senior residents do, but there are two elements at play here specific to the LGBT community.

The first is that by focusing on LGBT youth and LGBT seniors, the campus will surely create an additional level of intergenerational bonding due to shared experiences.

But the second is perhaps more subtle and more powerful. According to the Center, there are an estimated 65,000 LGBT people over the age of 64 living in Los Angeles, with 68% living alone. LGBT seniors struggle to afford housing, the Center notes, because they are four times less likely than heterosexual seniors to have children or grandchildren who can support them, and twice as likely to live alone.

“This isn’t just some office complex you’re creating,” Jean said in a speech in May of 2018 after the final steel beam was anchored. “Instead … what you are building will become a safe and loving home for hundreds of people who desperately need such homes.”

3. Use customs from multiple groups to build an inclusive lifestyle

A given housing trend in senior living does not have to be for everyone to be effective. Some seniors want to live in age-restricted active adult communities. Some want intergenerational. Some want to be in the suburbs. Some want urban living.

The myriad product types and lifestyle options in senior living is the natural result of operators seeking to provide choices to a booming aging population. The affinity group approach plays into that.

“As our society ages and a lot more people are in that (senior) demographic bubble, I think we need to have a lot of different kind of options,” says Amy Schectman, president and CEO of Brighton, Massachusetts-based 2Life Communities.

Formerly the Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly, or JCHE, 2Life is building a 62+ senior living community in Brookline, Massachusetts that will blend a number of intergenerational touches with values and traditions from the Jewish community. 2Life Communities is leasing the property from nearby Congregation Kehillath Israel (KI), and together they are building partnerships and co-sponsored events with the nearby Brookline Senior Center, while turning the community’s ground floor into a hub for activities and programming that will serve neighbors as well as residents.

2Life will do this in large part by following three tenets of Jewish culture. The first comes from the 10 Commandments: “honor thy mother and father.” 2Life sees that edict as a foundational piece to their approach to senior living, leading them to “view everything with love and kindness and dignity and respect,” Schectman says.

The second idea is the Jewish concept “Tikkun Olam,” or “repairing the world,” she says.

“So there is an equity issue involved in serving people who don’t otherwise have market options,” she says. “Everything we do is with a laser-sharp focus on affordability, and that comes, for me, from our Jewish values and identity.”

The third value is what Schectman says is the most repeated commandment in the Torah: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

“We open our hearts, minds and doors very wide to welcome everyone in, and create these multicultural, multi-everything communities — and that to me is the essence of Judaism,” she says.

Opening their hearts, minds and doors also means incorporating traditions from other cultures. 2Life follows the “rhythms” of the Jewish calendar, with the New Year in the fall, and they add to that rhythm Chinese celebrations, such as the Chinese New Year in February, and Russian celebrations, such as Victory Day in May.

“All of those things is how we express our Jewish culture,” Schectman says.

Of course like any trend, there is no one-size-fits-all with regards to the marketability of or desire for affinity-based intergenerational senior living. One huge draw to intergenerational living is the community and cross-generational integration, yet for some seniors that is actually a drawback, hence the growing popularity of active adult.

Indeed, with the expanding racial and ethnic diversity in the U.S., where white people are projected to fall under 50% of the U.S. population by 2065, the coming generation of seniors will be more accustomed to multicultural lifestyles than any before it.

Still, affinity-based intergenerational senior living can be a successful element of senior living, and should be taken into account by operators as they plan projects.

This article draws from the new report, “The New Opportunity for Intergenerational Senior Living.” Click here to access the complete report, which digs deep into the evolving world of intergenerational arrangements that are changing the future of senior living.

Written by Jack Silverstein

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