In July, an independent living facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee welcomed an unconventional new resident: an 18-year-old named John Payne.
This experiment in multigenerational housing is being led by The Victory Lap, a nonprofit organization that matches youth who have aged out of the foster care system with vacant apartments in senior housing communities, Victory Lap founder Rosemary Ramsey told Senior Housing News.
If the program proves to be successful, it has the potential to scale nationally and can address multiple issues facing the senior living industry: occupancy pressures, recruiting new talent to the senior living workforce, and fostering natural intergenerational relationships between a senior living site and the greater community.
This is not the first time that older adults and foster youth have lived in close proximity. Another example is Hope Meadows in Illinois, where seniors and foster youth live together in a housing development built on a former air force base.
A lot of communities said, ‘That’s a great idea. Keep me posted.’ But nobody wanted to be first.The Victory Lap Founder Rosemary Ramsey
But The Victory Lap stands out from other programs in adding an intergenerational component to properties purpose-built to accommodate seniors, as well as being in a market-rate senior living community.
“There are similar programs for affordable and low-income communities. This is the first market rate model,” Ramsey said.
It is also a model that can be, and is being duplicated. Waukesha, Wisconsin-based senior housing developer and operator Capri Communities is set to launch a similar program, CFO Kristin Ferge told SHN in June. Ferge is another Brookdale veteran who worked with Ramsey.
A foot in the door
Ramsey spent over 13 years in the marketing and operations department of Brentwood, Tennessee-based senior housing owner and operator Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD). During that time, she volunteered for an agency in the Nashville area that offered foster youth ages 18 to 21 assistance with transitioning to the outside world after aging out of the system.
More than 23,000 foster children in the U.S. age out of the foster system annually, according to statistics from the National Foster Youth Institute. Of that number, 20% will become homeless immediately after leaving the system, one out of two former foster children will find gainful employment by age 24, and foster youth who have aged out of the system will have a less than 3% chance of earning a college degree in their lifetimes.
Building occupancy was a constant topic of discussion during Ramsey’s time at Brookdale, and she saw an opportunity to address both this challenge and the foster system issues at the same time . Ramsey estimates the senior living industry has around 100,000 vacant units, and if former foster youth could fill 10% of those open apartments, it would help ease those occupancy pressures. Indeed, occupancy across the industry has hit historic low points recently, clocking in at 87.8% in Q2 2019, according to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC).
“Having first-hand knowledge of the needs of these young people, the fit between the two hit me like a ton of bricks, and I’ve been working on it ever since,” she said.
Ramsey began laying the foundation for what would become The Victory Lap in 2016, working with Tennessee state regulatory agencies to get approval, and pitching every senior housing operator she could find on the benefits of the program.
“A lot of communities said, ‘That’s a great idea. Keep me posted.’ But nobody wanted to be first,” she said.
Eventually, Ramsey reached out to Matthew Fox, CEO of Veritas Senior Living. Signal Mountain, Tennessee-based Veritas has two communities — one in Chattanooga and one in Herculaneum, Missouri. Fox and Ramsey were colleagues at Brookdale for many years, and when Ramsey made her pitch to Fox almost nine months ago, he was on board.
“Right away, I was excited,” he said.
Multiple benefits for senior living
There was a long road to placing John, the foster youth, at Veritas’ East Ridge Residences in Chattanooga. The Victory Lap needed approval from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS), which also inspected East Ridge to ensure it would be a suitable environment for John to live and thrive with the community’s residents.
DCS and a local agency, Patnership for Families, Children & Adults, also vetted foster youth who had aged out of the system before choosing John to be the first person to be placed through Victory Lap.
“We trusted them as they knew his background,” Ramsey said.
The Victory Lap carries a work and school component for the youth being placed at senior residences. They must work a minimum of 10 hours a week on site and they must also be enrolled at a four-year or community college, or a trade school, with a goal toward earning a degree. John is working in East Ridge’s dining room in the evenings. He will attend Chattanooga State Community College in the fall and wants to be a technical analyst for the FBI.
The local foster youth agency continues to monitor John as he becomes acclimated to his new living and working environment, tracking his progress and measuring data to determine the success of the pilot.
For Veritas, The Victory Lap pilot answers several questions, Fox told SHN. Veritas is most excited about the relationships that form between John and East Ridge residents, as the latter have a lot of life experience to share with someone who has little to no support system.
Bringing different generations together is increasingly a goal of senior living providers across the country. Older adults increasingly express a desire to live in settings where they interact with people of all ages, rather than being cut off in a remote retirement community on the edge of town.
Having first-hand knowledge of the needs of these young people, the fit between the two hit me like a ton of bricks.The Victory Lap Founder Rosemary Ramsey
Also like other operators across the country, Veritas is struggling to find and train staff. Having John on site, working in the community, addresses this pain point. The idea is that operators will be able to encourage and develop Victory Lap youth for possible careers in senior living, if they show a passion and aptitude for the industry.
“If someone’s educational goals matched with our needs, we would love to nurture that,” Fox said.
Finally, The Victory Lap program allows Veritas to generate some income for what was formerly a vacant apartment. DCS pays East Ridge around $900 per month for John’s room and board.
So far, John has acclimated himself well at East Ridge. He is thriving in the setting, residents love having him around, and East Ridge has room to add a total of four youth, Fox told SHN.
Ramsey, meanwhile, is pitching The Victory Lap with child protective agencies and operators in other states and hopes that other operators will follow Veritas’ lead. She sees multistate agencies and foster youth villages — there are 17 such villages across the U.S. — as the best way to scale the program.
“If we can get multi-state child welfare agencies and senior housing operators on board, we can make a lot of connections,” she said.