Dr. Bill Thomas is a man who wears many hats — and in 2023, he has a dual aim of changing senior living community design through modular construction and raising the bar on wellness for older adults.
On the real estate side of things, Thomas’ Kallimos Communities — a multigenerational living concept he launched with colleagues in 2021 — this year absorbed another one of his ventures, Minka.
Minka launched with a bold and unproven plan to build small homes using modular construction parts in order to apply his multi-ability/multi-generational inclusive communities concept, also known as MAGIC.
Now part of Kallimos, Minka’s spirit continues — but instead of using modular techniques to build small homes, the organization will hone its focus to build modular interior rooms that can be swapped out with each resident.
On the wellness side, Thomas is forging ahead as Lifespark Chief Independence Officer with sharing his findings from holding a wellness-focused “team sport” that he says could change how operators engage residents.
Both are part of Thomas’ larger mission of reframing senior living, both in how communities come together and what happens inside of them.
Taking wellness to ‘the land of we’
Just as he is an innovator for a new way to build senior living real estate, Thomas is also trying to take wellness in a new direction for older adults.
Thomas, Lifespark and partner The Eden Alternative launched an event called Playing to Win, which is a “global symposium on aging magnificently.”
The events that make up Playing to Win pit residents in communities against one another in various events with cash prizes up for grabs. But doling out cash is not the primary goal of Playing to Win — instead, it’s about enhancing strength, purpose and belonging and improving health outcomes.
As part of Playing to Win, Lifespark created 34 different teams representing each of the company’s communities, and then organized those teams into two divisions that played against one another, similar to Major League Baseball.
As part of teams with names such as the Heritage Pointe Dragonfiles, Lifespark residents competed in events ranging from hand-pumping the most water to racing miniature forklifts. Through remote conferencing, Thomas updates the residents on their teams’ standings each week as part of a program called the Really Big Show.
The concept marries resident engagement with what Thomas calls the “tang of the real” — the feeling one gets when competing in an event with an uncertain outcome. Senior living operators are often good at the former, but not at the latter, he said.
“Conventional practice is to strip out the uncertainty,” Thomas told Senior Housing News. “It never gives you that thrill of going into a competition not knowing who’s going to win.”
Although residents who compete may not know it, the games are not only meant to get them having fun, but also to improve their health outcomes using evidence-based methods. For example, the water-pumping games are actually aimed at improving grip strength, which is associated with overall health and mobility.
Results from the competitions are then integrated into the performance dashboards for Lifespark’s executive directors and regional directors.
“Gamification is the new frontier in engagement,” Thomas said.
And the team-based nature of Playing to Win is meant to take wellness from what Thomas called “the land of me” into “the land of we.”
“Real wellness actually comes out of a powerful sense of ‘we’ — belonging and community,” Thomas said. “So, this is reframing wellness from an individual to a community perspective, and it’s leveraging pieces of technology, some of which we made.”
Lifespark is not gatekeeping the concept — in fact, Lifespark is sharing the program through $99 courses for operators. And looking ahead, Thomas hopes his idea sparks a larger movement wherein operators start their own competition leagues with their own competitions for residents.
“There are a lot of smart people out there, and a lot of times because of the pressure of operations, they don’t get the time to really invest in new ideas,” Thomas said. “Lifespark did — and they’re willing to share it.”
Minka’s modular roots live on
Minka was launched in 2017 with a prototype on the Evansville, Indiana-based campus of the University of Southern Indiana. At the outset, Minka was meant to challenge the “big-box” style of senior living in which dozens or sometimes hundreds of residents live under one roof — good for developers and operators, but not necessarily for the residents.
At the concept’s core was a plan to build small homes through modular construction, then enhance them with technology that would help older adults live independently. With a construction cost at about $152 per square foot and a small footprint that could conform to many different land uses, the trailblazing concept was thought potentially as a game-changer for the industry’s quest to meet the middle market.
Minka had built and then sold three houses, and was gaining momentum when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020. Like many other businesses around the time, the challenges of the period meant the company faced new and lofty headwinds.
Also challenging was aligning the concept’s modular construction method with local building codes. While Minka could be mass produced at a relatively low cost, the need to conform to local regulations — which could change from one metro area to another — meant that each Minka home had to be effectively reinvented time and time again.
Those challenges ultimately proved too much for Minka and its small staff to bear, and the organization was wound down in March, 2022, and was folded into Kallimos Communities. But the dream of modular senior housing did not die with the move, Thomas said.
Instead of constructing whole communities using modular techniques, Thomas realized the company could still apply the concept to community interiors. That led to a new partnership between Lifespark and Kallimos to effectively develop a new residential model for senior housing that is coming together in Loveland, Colorado.
There, the two organizations are planning two Kallimos communities on adjacent, 7.5-acre sites, using a roughly $874,000 grant from the Loveland Housing Authority. The plan is to then layer services from Lifespark on the communities to create a care backstop for residents.
What makes the model relatively unique is that Thomas has a vision of building communities that act as shells to interiors that can essentially be swapped out from one resident to another. In a normal senior living community, residents do sometimes have some control over unit layouts, but usually as it relates to wallpaper or furniture.
In a Kallimos community using the concept, a resident could choose exactly the kind of physical layout they want, from where a bedroom is located to how much storage space is included.
“It’s really about putting the pieces together in a new way,” Thomas said. “Adaptable interiors, affordable housing, population health, a focus on wellness — that’s what really what defines Kallimos.”
He added: “We’re backing up and taking our learnings and plugging them into Kalamos.”