In the last two decades, Serenbe has gained a reputation as a pioneering wellness community, incorporating intergenerational living as a key principle. Now, plans are in the works to develop a seven-acre campus within Serenbe to more intentionally enable aging in place, putting the community at the forefront of several trends in senior living.
“We’re decoupling everything in that seven-acre campus — so, hospitality, food, health care delivery, physical therapy — and we’re setting it up to where you can age in place throughout,” Serenbe Founder and CEO Steve Nygren said during a keynote conversation at Senior Housing News’ recent WELLNESS event in Atlanta.
In creating the plans for this new development, Serenbe is working with the organization behind Hogeweyk, the famed “dementia village” in The Netherlands. And Nygren and his team are drawing from lessons learned at Serenbe — including an earlier attempt at housing aimed at older adults — and through visiting senior living communities throughout the United States.
The vision is for a community that will incorporate and extend elements of Serenbe, such as biophilic design, intergenerational connections and locally-sourced food, that have made the community near Atlanta into an award-winning model for wellness-driven living.
Inside the Serenbe model
Nygren’s penchant for innovation can be traced back to his career in the restaurant and hospitality sector. In 1973, he and his partner Dick Dailey introduced a new kind of dining option to Atlanta with their restaurant the Pleasant Peasant. As described by Atlanta Magazine:
“The country French bistro launched then-innovative concepts like chalkboard menus, oversized portions, and—gasp—a no-jacket-required dress code. Within months, lines stretched out the door.”
Nygren ultimately amassed a portfolio of 34 restaurants, then sold the company and moved with his wife and young children to their “weekend farm” about 25 minutes southwest of Atlanta, he said at WELLNESS. This was a “paradise” for the family for about seven years, but then the specter of urban sprawl motivated Nygren to take a dramatic step — he led an effort to bring together 500 landowners and change the zoning on 40,000 acres, and Serenbe was born.
A key inspiration for Serenbe was the countryside of England, where villages and towns are more harmoniously blended with the natural world than is typical in the United States. That principle finds expression in the various biophilic elements of Serenbe, including the fact that 70% of the total land is placed in conservation, with only the remaining 30% available for development into “dense, walkable clusters” of residential and commercial real estate and other amenities, per the Serenbe website.
Biophilic elements abound, including the fact that homes in Serenbe do not have lawns but rather shrubs, flowers, edible plants and similar vegetation. The connection with nature is meant to further the goal of Serenbe as a community designed to promote and maintain residents’ wellness.
“Beauty is basically found in nature, and good architecture, good built environments, and that affects the brain’s responses to the body. And they’re starting to track how that brain response affects our health,” Nygren said. “There’s been studies for some time on how seeing nature affects healing. This is why hospitals are redesigned with big windows [looking out] into nature.”
Food and social connection also are key elements of the wellness lifestyle at Serenbe, which features a 25-acre organic farm, seasonal farmer’s market and blueberry bushes at every crosswalk.
Social connections — another key facet of a wellness-focused lifestyle — are fostered in a variety of ways, including through a commitment to the arts that is supported through a 1% transfer fee on every house sold or resold, which Nygren said has helped fund more than a million dollars of annual arts programming.
Intergenerational interactions have always been a foundational element of life at Serenbe, he said, and facilitated through design decisions meant to create “accidental collisions.” For instance, each sub-community within Serenbe has one central location for mail. The “big joke” is that it takes two hours to get your mail at Serenbe, he said, because of all the socializing that happens.
“That’s where some deep relationships have been formed,” he said.
There are about 180 children living in Serenbe at the moment, and the community includes several educational institutions, including an Acton Academy in the works — and Nygren knows of 70- and 80-year-olds who moved to Serenbe and joined a school board. The farm likewise provides a venue for intergenerational mingling, with school groups going to work alongside older volunteers.
“It keeps them vital and connected,” Nygren said.
A new vision for aging-in-place
Not every attempt at facilitating intergenerational living has gone smoothly at Serenbe. A previous effort to create 55-plus housing did not go as planned, even though it was designed with older adults’ preferences in mind.
“I’d read in one of your publications that seniors want to live in intergenerational communities except between 10pm and 6am,” Nygren said.
To accommodate this, Serenbe’s leaders conceived of 16 cottages arranged around a medicinal garden, with a large central house featuring shared spaces such as a dining room.
“And then down the street is the house with six kids, so it’s all integrated, but [the 55-plus residents] will be here and it could be quiet in the evening,” Nygren said.
However, the cottages failed to sell, even though similar residences were selling elsewhere in Serenbe. Finally, the “55-plus” label was taken off the cottages and they promptly sold — to people older than 65.
From this experience, Nygren learned that baby boomers do not like to be labeled, and they are challenging our assumptions about what lifestyle older adults desire. These lessons are being applied to the new campus.
The plans call for 40 rental apartments, 24 cottages around a courtyard, 24 individual cottages, a “wellness club,” restaurant and retail. Serenbe also is in conversation with “leading regional and national, forward-thinking providers focused on health, wellness, and prevention” for partnerships, a spokesperson for the organization told SHN.
A concierge program will help residents access and make the most of these services and amenities, Nygren said. The service will be built into the rent for residents of the campus, and any resident of Serenbe will be able to “join the club” to gain access.
The design also includes several elements related to intergenerational living.
“We’re putting the teen center in the base of the apartment building on the campus, and the art room for the campus is going to be across the street in the school,” Nygren said.
At the heart of this model is the notion of de-coupling housing, health care and hospitality. It’s an idea that more traditional senior living providers also are starting to embrace, as they recognize that the typical bundled model does not allow for the personalization that the rising generation of older adults desires and expects.
Providers such as Juniper Communities, Discovery Senior Living, Mather and Watermark are all taking steps to create wellness models that are more personalized to each resident’s goals, with some models going to a more a la carte approach to services, amenities and pricing.
To Nygren, such an approach is critical to respecting older adults’ autonomy, as expressed through their purchasing power. He provided the example of dining; he toured senior living communities with multiple, beautiful dining venues serving high-quality food. And yet, chefs and other culinary workers were frustrated at residents’ complaints.
After talking with residents, Nygren determined that their dissatisfaction was linked to a lack of buying power. He compared their experience to being on a cruise ship, where the staff might inquire, “Which dining room are we going to see you in tomorrow night, Miss Jones?”
The message that sends is subtly but meaningfully different than, “I want your business tomorrow night.”
“It’s just a subtle difference in that courtesy and how the person feels,” Nygren said. “So, I think that’s one of the big things, is how do we allow people to continue feeling that independence and having that buying power?”
Innovations in affordability
Just as senior living providers are seeking new ways of putting resident wellness at the forefront, so too are they trying to devise models to serve a middle-market consumer. Nygren likewise has affordability in mind as development continues at Serenbe.
In the early days of Serenbe, Nygren set out to create a premium product, in order to attract investment by overcoming the stereotype of wellness communities as “hippie villages.” This effort has succeeded in changing attitudes, as is demonstrated by similar communities across the United States now able to use Serenbe as a point of comparison when trying to secure capital.
But density supports affordability, as does relying on local sources of food, Nygren said. And over the next five years, Serenbe plans “really show the other end of this” and “demonstrate affordability.”
New designs for housing, including workforce housing, will support this affordability goal. Early steps have already been taken in creating housing for visiting artists, Nygren said.
And he pointed out that while “new trends always tend to be more expensive,” the actual model that Serenbe embodies only appears to be new because the typical way of living in the United States has strayed so far from what used to be commonplace — including people growing their own food in gardens and relying primarily on walking to get around.
“This is all going back to how we lived 60, 70 years ago,” Nygren said. “And I think we just have to look back to understand how we need to move forward.”