The Power of Moments

I’ll Push You

I recently heard 40 somethings Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray share their story about a great adventure to traverse the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile trek through Spain. This story is captured in the recent documentary, I’ll Push You. Justin and Patrick have been best friends their whole lives: they grew up together, when to school together and were best man in each other’s weddings. Starting in high school, Justin was diagnosed with a neuromuscular disease that eventually required him to use a wheelchair. Patrick and Justin were committed to neither let Justin’s deteriorating health negatively impact their friendship nor limit their dreams.

So when Justin heard about the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile trek through Spain, he wondered aloud to Patrick whether the two of them could ever do it. Patrick’s immediate response was: “I’ll push you.” The movie is a powerful story of their journey and is full of peaks and pits. (It should be noted that the Camino de Santiago is a challenging trek for even the most fit athletes!)

The Best Memories are Just for the Young?

Justin and Patrick created a peak moment in mid-life. However, there is a prevailing belief that many of our best moments occur when we are young. In fact, people predict that most of our peak memorable events occur before the age of 30. In an era of increasing longevity where an increasing number of us will have at least 2/3rds of our lives ahead of us, our mindset needs to change.

We can do something about this. As Dan and Chip Heath highlight in their recent book, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, there are things we can do to create more powerful moments at any age. Part of their recommendation is to be more intentional about seizing and creating such opportunities.

The Art of Creating More Powerful Moments

They see a defining moment as a short experience that is both memorable and meaningful. The Heath brothers outline four elements of creating such moments: elevation, pride, insight and connection (“EPIC”). Elevation indicates moments where we reach a new milestone or accomplishment. This can often involve something that boosts our sensory pleasures, introduces an element of competition (thereby raising the stakes) and breaks the script of what’s normal. Pride indicates situations where you are especially grateful of what you accomplished. Insights refer to situations where you learned something about yourself and can often happen during times of challenge or transition. Connection relates to times when an experience is shared with others.

The most powerful moments combine these elements. For Justin and Patrick, their experience included all of these dimensions: elevation in their accomplishment of traversing the mountains, pride in their ability to overcome an insurmountable challenge, insights in what they learned about themselves and connection in having this shared experience. With their documentary, they have allowed others to vicariously be inspired by their peak moment.

Creating Moments is One of Our Aspirations

At Smart Living 360, we see a big difference between residing in an apartment building and living in an engaged community. Particularly in an era of increased longevity, we see value in helping people of any age think about ways to add more memorable and meaningful experiences in their lives. This can come in a wide variety of forms. For some, we have witnessed special moments occur when a connection is made between new friends or when a resident seizes the opportunity to try something new. It’s particularly gratifying when residents take the initiative to create events or gatherings in the hopes of engaging others around a common interest and craft memories together.

We’ve also learned that empathy is particularly important in creating moments. A number of residents have downsized from larger homes which they have lived in for many years. This transition can be both exciting and terrifying. Helping smooth this transition in thoughtful ways, with the help of our Lifestyle Ambassador, can lead to very positive moments.

Scripting Your Own Moments: A Thanksgiving Example

Thanksgiving has always been one of our family’s favorite holidays. We took a step towards creating a special moment several years ago when we experimented with a kids vs. parents soccer game among families in our neighborhood. As the kids have grown and become more skilled, the games have become increasingly close and intense. In fact, this year the kids prevailed, surely a peak moment for them. However, we’re coming back stronger next year, and, as adults in our forties, will continue to make memories and hopefully bring back a win.

Man Sleeping

Sleep and 8 Hours Mike

8 Hours Mike

My college roommate and best friend, Mike, is an outlier in many ways. He’s a native Philadelphian who cares more about international politics than local sports teams, manages to be a decent athlete despite being excruciatingly slow at virtually everything he does (his nickname is “Mollasses”) and, in our college days, was perhaps the only person on campus religious about getting eight hours shut-eye every night. If you wanted someone to stay up late or get up especially early, Mike was the wrong guy to ask. He was insistent – and still is – on getting his eight hours of sleep whenever and wherever possible. He is “8 Hours Mike”.

Benefits of Sleep and Health Risks with Sleep Depravation

I doubt 8 Hours Mike was fully aware of the health benefits of sleep but it has probably played no small part in his success in college and in life.  Dr. Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist and Director of UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab, expounds on the critical importance of sleep across the age spectrum in his book released earlier this month, Why We Sleep. Dr. Walker claims, based on dozens of research studies, that sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day. Sleep helps cement positive memories and mollifies painful ones, and melds past and present knowledge, inspiring creativity.

Conversely, insufficient sleep causes havoc. Insufficient sleep – routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night – demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer, and also increasing odds of diabetes, heart disease and dementia, among other effects. Too little sleep also makes it more difficult to manage stress and anxiety. It’s no exaggeration to say that not enough sleep can kill you. In fact, more vehicle accidents are caused by drowsy driving than alcohol and drugs combined. This is because, as studies confirm, people awake for nineteen hours or more are at least as cognitively impaired as those who are legally drunk.

Don't Drive Tired

Basics of Sleep

Recent advances in neuroscience have helped us learn more about the nature of sleep. Sleep comes in two forms: Non-REM sleep and REM sleep. Non-REM sleep is more important for restoration and cementing memories; meanwhile, REM sleep allows for dreaming which helps spark creativity.

In addition, our sleep is influenced by two, independent biological elements: circadian rhythm and melatonin. The circadian rhythm is effectively a personal 24-hour clock that signals to your brain that it’s time to wake up or go to sleep. About 40% of people have a circadian rhythm that creates “morning types”, another 30% are “evening types” and the remaining percent fall somewhere in between. The release of melatonin helps spark drowsiness – based on “sleep pressure” and is based primarily on how long one has been awake.

Sleep Across the Age Spectrum

As we age, the type of sleep changes but achieving a full night’s sleep is just as important. In midlife and beyond, we witness a reduction in quantity and quality, sleep efficiency and disrupted timing of sleep. By age 70, we have lost about 80% to 90% of the deep sleep we enjoyed as a teenager. Further, our sleep efficiency – or the amount of bed time to actual sleep time – falls from 95% to between 70% to 80%. Therefore, in order to achieve 8 hours sleep, we need 10 or more hours of bed time. In addition, there is a change in our circadian rhythm as we age so we tend to tire earlier, leading to earlier and earlier bedtimes. Hence, the “early bird” dinner special.

Managing these changes as we age is critical. The lower an older individual’s sleep efficiency score, the higher the mortality risk, the worse their physical health, the more likely they are to suffer from depression, the less energy they report, and the lower their cognitive function, typified by forgetfulness. In some cases, forgetfulness may be more linked to poor sleep than a specific mental condition.

Best Practices and Impact of Living Environment

The National Sleep Foundation and NIH, among other groups, provide some guidance on best sleeping practices. Some of the common ideas include:

(a) Minimize electrical light, esp. blue light from LEDs found in many electronic devices, particularly within an hour before bed time.
(b) Regularize temperature – ideally in the mid-60s – to make it easier to fall and stay asleep
(c) Minimize caffeine, esp. in the afternoon and evening, as this can throw off the timing of your melatonin release
(d) Minimize alcohol, esp. in the afternoon and evening, as it negatively impacts the quality of sleep
(e) Create flexibility on your work schedule, if possible, to better align with your circadian rhythm

At Smart Living 360, one of our central goals is to enhance personal well-being. Your living environment can be customized to optimize your sleeping, including some of the suggestions above, and, with advanced technologies, your sleep can be easily be analyzed and measured to make sure you are getting the slumber you need. Small changes can be significant and nudge you to better health, literally adding years to your life so can you take full advantage of the Longevity Bonus.

A Need for More 8 Hours Mikes

A century ago, less than 2 percent of the population in the US slept six hours or less a night. Now, almost 30% of American adults do. We could help our individual health and our society at large if, like 8 Hours Mike, we were more insistent about getting our eight hours of sleep each and every night.

Why Community Matters

Not All Social Connection is Created Equal

With the recent ten year anniversary of the Apple iPhone, it is remarkable how pervasive smartphones have become. 77% of people in the US own a smartphone, double the percentage from just five years ago. With each new model, these devices are getting faster and more powerful, and more addictive. Critics have highlighted the downsides of smartphones, including its impact on youth. One thing is clear: social media is not the same as face-to-face connection.

Beginning of #EatTogether: Everyone Fixated on Phones

Last year, a Canadian supermarket chain, Loblaws, released a video – #EatTogether – to capture the differences between technology and face-to-face connection. The two minute video captures the isolation of people tethered to their smartphones and devices and flips the script with these same people connecting over a spontaneous meal in the hallway of their apartment building. There is something powerful and natural about sharing a meal with others.

Ending of #EatTogether: People Come Together to Share a Meal

Importance of Face-to-Face Connection

Face-to-face personal connection matters a lot. Research shows that social isolation is worse than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. About 1/3 of us suffer from loneliness. In some ways, women are particularly at risk for loneliness, in part, because women are more likely to be affected by their friends’ feelings of loneliness, as feelings spread more easily within their social networks. Others point out that the biggest threat facing middle aged men is loneliness.

Moreover, trends are broadly discouraging. More people, especially older adults, are living alone – currently ¼ of men and ½ of women 75 years of age or older live alone – and living alone is the most positive predictor of loneliness. In addition, while social media has increased the number of people we communicate with, the number of close friends has decreased from three in 1985 to less than two today.

On the flip side, strong personal connection and sense of community can add up to fifteen years to one’s lifespan. Researchers have found that people with active social lives recover faster after an illness than those who are solitary – MRIs show greater tissue repair. Further, research indicates that people who have had a stroke are better protected from grave complications by a tight, supportive social network than they are by medication.

How We Live and Where We Live Matters

The lifestyle we choose – including where we live – can have a big impact on our sense of community and overall well-being.

There are a number of things we can do. We can work harder to maintain our important friendships, through regular get togethers, reunions, etc. We can also be proactive about making new friends. This can mean joining local civic organizations, book clubs, exercise groups and so on.

We can also choose to live in places that positively impact our sense of community. Walkable neighborhoods and parks (see Smart Growth America for good examples) can help bring people together more often. Conversely, isolated suburban homes where few people know their neighbors is not a recipe for success.

Bethesda Row, Bethesda, MD: An Example of Walkable Mixed-Use Development

Developing a Sense of Community at Smart Living 360

Creating a sense of community is core to the Smart Living 360 philosophy and approach. In fact, connection is one of our three core attributes. We don’t require people to get to know their neighbors but we make it easy. We let prospective residents know that community building is part of our DNA. We have designed common spaces to facilitate small and large gatherings, including a catering kitchen suitable for potlucks and catered meals. Our Lifestyle Ambassador is a key facilitator to bring people together on a regular basis and helps make connection among people in the community.

Exciting things happen when a building becomes a community. People show interest in others’ and learning their personal stories. People start helping each other and invite others to become more involved in their lives. It can become contagious, getting more and more people desiring to be part of the community’s social fabric.

At The Stories, a Smart Living 360 community, residents help tutor French to kids within the community, participate in regular resident-driven get-togethers and celebrate each others’ successes. For example, a long time dream of one resident was to become a policeman. When he was commissioned to the Montgomery County police force last year, residents celebrated around the BBQ to share in his achievement.

Time to Make a Video a Reality

The Eating Together video is compelling. But it’s fiction. Loblaws is trying to change that with the first national Eat Together Day. This is a good start, but we can do ourselves a favor and make eating together a far more regular exercise. Odds are it would help us all live longer, healthier lives.

Evolution of Housing

House & Home Exhibit

Earlier this year, I visited the National Building Museum in Washington DC. The museum has a widely praised special exhibit entitled House & Home which examines how the American home has been shaped by transformations in technology, changes in government policy and consumer culture over many centuries. The exhibit serves as a reminder how much our living environments have evolved and will continue to do so at a rapid pace.

The exhibit is comprehensive and goes beyond construction type and architecture style and shows how technology has impacted our lives within our homes. For example, as noted in the picture above, irons (far left) as well as washers & dryers, dish washers and vacuums have freed up many hours of people’s time each week. It is easy to forget that prior to these innovations, homemakers spent the vast majority of each day washing clothes, cleaning and the like.

Changes of Today

Our homes and living environments continue to evolve. Today, we see greater housing density in thriving urban areas and neighboring suburban areas, particularly in the form of high quality apartment living. Walkability – and even “livability” – is seen as a highly sought after attribute. We are witnessing changes in how people think about and use space.  There is Interest in smaller spaces, such as small houses as evidenced by televisions shows like Tiny House, Big Living and advent of microunits, sometimes as small as 300 square feet, in urban areas. Even bigger homes are being designed in more usable ways. Sarah Suzanka’s Not So Big House book series, which has sold over a million copies, continues to evoke interest and help people design homes for how they really live.

Technology continues to shape how we live. Almost over night, Amazon Echo, or “Alexa”, has become ubiquitous in many households and, in our case, has eliminated the need for a physical grocery list.  Smartphones and tablets have allowed for multimedia viewing from anywhere in the house. There is now less of a need to be tethered to the “entertainment room” or perhaps have such a dedicated room at all. Sonos has done a remarkable job of a making streaming music an easy, relatively affordable and eliminate the need for built-in speakers. With autonomous vehicles available on demand, we may see garages and parking spaces become less necessary.

A Call for New Housing Models

With technology advances, changing consumer preferences and an aging demographic, there is a call for new housing models. Joe Coughlin, Director the MIT AgeLab, believes that “longevity changes everything” and has contributed his vision of the future in what he calls “Gerontopia”, though it is probably more accurately described as “Intergenerational-topia”. This community of the future is designed with all ages in mind and incorporates the right mix of activity, intensity, density and accessibility to work successfully for all people. Naturally, Dr. Coughlin’s model also takes advantage of technology advances, such as easy access to digital and on-demand services, including home delivery of meals, transportation and other elements of the sharing economy.

The Opportunity for Housing to Meld to Desires & Evolving Needs

At Smart Living 360, our vision for housing is to be far more than a place to hang your hat; we believe our living environments should inspire us, create true community and adjust as our needs change. Like Dr. Coughlin, we see an opportunity to develop intergenerational communities in walkable areas which can seamlessly enhance the well-being of a wide range of people. We do this through smart design, an orientation towards community and personal connection and access to important lifestyle and health services. Our onsite Lifestyle Ambassador is key. Evolving technologies also help enrich people’s lives and support on demand services as needs change.

House and Home Exhibit of 2050

Given changes underway and ahead, it will be fascinating to see the House and Home Exhibit of 2050. It’s impossible to accurately predict how precisely our housing will change but we can expect that the iPhone will be considered a relic of the past, which is a crazy thought in 2017.  My greatest hope is that our housing will continue to evolve in a way to help us live an enriching life at any stage in our life’s journey.

Designing for Longevity

The Power of Nudge

For a host of reasons, many of us will live longer, in some cases much longer, lives than our ancestors. In many cases, it won’t just be longer lives, it will be healthier lives. Our DNA has a role in our longevity but our lifestyle – the set of decisions we make each and every day – has a more powerful impact. These choices include the friends we keep, the activities we engage in and the places we live. In other words, our choices have a direct impact on the shape and magnitude of what experts call our Longevity Bonus.

So how can we successfully design for longevity?

Behavioral economists have researched how and what habits or practices can help lead to better decisions. The allure is that a small change or impact at the individual level, if multiplied and scaled, can have a profound impact on society at large.

The most well known behavioral economists on “nudging” may be Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. In their best-selling book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, they define ‘nudge’ as a gentle, not mandated, cue, push or other means to encourage a desired behavior.

Cafeteria

Our kids’ school has been experimenting with nudging. Last year, as part of a student project, they replaced existing trashcans with three containers across three categories with supportive pictures: landfill, recyclables and compostables. The hope is that this signage would prompt people to think about the impact of their decisions. Indeed, it has led to an increase in recycling at the school.

An Example: Nudging to Greater Physical Well-Being

Earlier this year, I attended the Lake Nona Impact Forum which included a panel of the four most recent surgeon generals. Their collective advice for physical well-being: move.  They advocate making sure that we make concerted efforts to move every day, multiple times a day.

I have been making a more intentional effort to be active in 2017 and I have been using the Oura ring to help. The Oura ring is like a fit bit for your finger and does a great job of measuring general activity and quality of sleep. It detects blood volume pulse, body temperature and general movement though sensors embedded in the ring. The Bluetooth integrated app uses an easy-to-understand graphical interface to display results on activity and sleep quality and offers specific feedback and, often for me, words of encouragement.

App Screenshot

App Screenshot 2

The Oura ring has provided helpful nudges to help me stay moving. It is part of a growing body of wearables that are making a difference in people’s health. In fact, there is some encouraging news about the role of apps along with follow up services to help manage chronic conditions and stay well.

Designing for Longevity at Smart Living 360

At our core at Smart Living 360, we design and operate innovative living environments to enhance well-being. In other words, we create “nudges” to help residents find greater purpose, social connection, physical well-being, financial well-being and engagement in their community.

In the physical domain, we create communal areas designed for supporting planned and spontaneous interactions. These activities may include resident-led reading groups and craft clubs, outside speakers, workshops and potluck dinners and socials in our catering kitchen and club room.  A state-of-the art fitness center makes it easy for residents to stay active, even when the conditions are not particularly accommodating outside. A conference room with infrastructure to support telehealth allows for technology and services to help people stay healthy.

In the apartment home, contemporary design with elements of modern living, such as gourmet kitchens with custom cabinetry, stainless steel appliances and granite countertops, is coupled with universal design features, such as showers with benches, slip-resistant tiles and wider doorways, to accommodate the desires and needs for people of all ages. The ability to customize paint color, fixtures and technology options all add to the sense of creating home.

Nudging to better well-being also means creating a culture that engages and empowers people. With our Lifestyle Ambassador as the catalyst, we help connect people to each other – creating intergenerational relationships along the way, provide access to services on an a la carte basis and provide for greater simplicity in life, so residents can focus on what’s most important.

What Can We Do with this Longevity Bonus?

The Longevity Bonus is a gift of our modern times, but only if we pursue a lifestyle that nurtures this gift. Thankfully, tools to help us lead healthier lives are increasing, including in the realm of our living environments.

The next step is to make full use of these extra years of life. As we will explore in a future blog, the opportunity to live – what can be extra decades of life – can be an exciting but daunting task and requires as much creativity as it does careful planning.

 

An Era of Accelerating Change

Change All Around Us

Elon Musk may best embody the American Dream among today’s entrepreneurs. A native of South Africa, he has been a trailblazer in the fields of electronic payment (PayPal), solar power (SolarCity), space travel (SpaceX) and electric vehicles (Tesla). Most recently, he founded Neuralink, a neurotechnology company reported to be developing implantable brain–computer interfaces (BCIs). All this and he is only 45 years age. My bet is that he’s not done yet.

The prospect of consumer space travel, autonomous vehicles, and computer-aided brain function can make it feel like we are living in a world of science fiction. But, we are not. These advances are a direct outcome of an era of accelerating change.

Putting Progress in Perspective

It is easy to forget but for millennia not much changed generation to generation. People lived predictably brief and uneventful lives. Then, the Industrial Revolution brought change on a dramatic scale. For example, life expectancy at birth has increased more than twice as much in the last century as it did in the previous 200,000 years. Our global wealth has skyrocketed. The ability to innovate on top of exiting innovations – which is now possible with the reach of the Internet to gain free and instantaneous access to information worldwide – suggests that the steep trajectory of change will only continue.

 From Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future by Johan Norberg 

Predicting the Future Has Never Been More Difficult and The Recent Past May Not Be the Best Anchor

Our minds are wired to understand linear changes, not hockey stick changes. This is why logarithmic graphs – linear representation of non-linear phenomenon – were created. It becomes even more challenging when multiple non-linear changes occur at the same time. Advances in computing power, machine learning and the proliferation of small, interconnected devices are examples of today’s reality.

Even some of our sharpest minds are struggling to make sense of it. At the recent Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting, Warren Buffett commented on the dramatically changing landscape of retail by saying, “I have no illusion that 10 years from now will look the same as today, and there will be a few things along the way that surprise us,” he said. “The world has evolved, and it’s going to keep evolving, but the speed is increasing.”

It’s Not All Rosy

As we have learned, dramatic changes – even if generally positive – create disruption and losers as well as winners. Some of the pitfalls can be predicted but many cannot. For example, our new era of connectivity has, ironically, created a greater sense of isolation and increased anxiety. Studies have found that active Facebook users can be lonely as compared to peers that are not as active on social media. Numerous articles and studies point to the dangers and increased risks of social isolation, including the recent Boston Globe article “The biggest Threat Facing Middle-Age Men isn’t Smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.

How and Where We Live Will Change, Too

Our living environments will increasingly change, too.  These various advances give us new tools to meet people’s needs in new and innovative ways. On demand services, such as Uber for transportation or Task Rabbit for handyman needs, can replace traditional methods. The adoption and ubiquity of the “Internet of Healthy Things” – connected devices that help track personal data for your well-being – can help people stay healthy. I have been using the Oura Ring – effectively a fitbit for your finger – and it has provided accurate and informative diagnosis of my activity and sleep patterns to help me manage my life. Telehealth is being increasingly used in non-institutional settings to keep people from needing to go to the hospital.

These advances will enhance existing residential environments; they will also help spawn new residential models. Specially designed co-living residential options are new and gathering momentum with a multitude of providers. At Smart Living 360, we have seen how the impact of clever design, a culture of personal connection and the ability to coordinate services can resonate with people of multiple generations. Over time, with continued advances, we expect intelligently designed intergenerational living to be the norm, not the exception.

Looking Ahead

Perhaps the only thing we can accurately predict about the future is that will be different than today. Our collective opportunity and challenge will be to use ongoing advances to positively impact the world and humanity. Elon Musk’s ambitious vision of what’s possible should serve as inspiration to us all.

The Future of Health

The Future of Health Care is Staying Healthy

The US currently spends over $3 trillion dollars (or 18% of its GDP) on health care. This is significantly higher than most other countries and is twice the per capita average of other developed countries. Further, partially driven by an aging population, health care is expected to reach 20% of GDP by 2025, representing nearly $5.5 trillion dollars. These are huge numbers.  While health care is a complicated and controversial subject, it is clear that we need to find ways to rein in spending.

The future of health care is staying healthy. This was a theme of the recent Lake Nona Impact Forum, an annual gathering that brings together the nation’s top CEOs, health care innovators and thought leaders. One health expert, Ezekiel Emanuel, concluded that our country is “over hospitaled”, estimating that over 1,000 hospitals, or approx. 20% of the nation’s supply, are destined to close with a shift away from services provided in institutions to those in the community. All agreed that changes ahead are profound.

Not a Triple but a Quadruple Aim -> Consumer Engagement

Back in 2010, the US health care administration introduced the goal of a “triple aim”: (i) improving quality of care, (ii) improving health of populations, and (iii) reducing the per capita cost. Today, some argue it should be a “quadruple aim” adding consumer engagement. We need to find ways for more people to be motivated to stay healthy so we can shift resources from managing sickness to staying healthy. This is a particularly important task for insurers as well as certain states, such as Maryland and Vermont, who have chosen to be accountable for their total health care spend.

Increasing Role of Technology and Personal Data

Just as it has for other parts of our lives, technology and personal data will play an increasing role in our health. These advances promise to improve outcomes and reduce cost. Telehealth is now a common feature among commercial insurance plans, including UnitedHealth and Kaiser, and consumers have appreciated its convenience and effectiveness. Originally of Jeopardy fame, IBM Watson has focused energies on health care and has partnered with various health care institutions to accelerate health research. Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot is a bet on the ability to learn from metadata of millions of people.

Powerful tools are increasingly available to consumers to help stay informed and healthy. Daniel Kraft, a speaker at this year’s Impact Forum, highlights what’s possible with smartphones, peripherals and specialized health apps (“There’s an App for That”). I wear an Oura ring that provides accurate insights on activity and sleep patterns, including periods of light, deep and REM sleep. Internet of health things devices, like the Oura ring, can connect to new data consumer platforms, like Curious, to allow people to share data and learn from others.

Housing as Platform for Improved Health

Particularly as we shift from managing sickness to staying healthy, housing, one of the social determinants of health, plays an increasingly significant role. Work at the Bipartisan Policy Center has highlighted the important interplay of housing and health and the need to promote best-in-class options.  Innovative seniors housing providers, such as Juniper Communities, have demonstrated the positive impact of new housing models, including reduced costs and increased health.

At Smart Living 360, enhancing personal well-being is paramount. This thinking influences location strategies, design sensibilities and community culture.  We target walkable mixed-use locations, typically with a grocer in close proximity. Our design integrates in-unit features that accommodate people of all ages and stages, and common spaces are laid out to optimize interaction and utility.  Fitness rooms include a range of equipment to meet a variety of needs and are technology forward. Community programming, facilitated by our Lifestyle Ambassador, is oriented to increasing purpose, personal connection and physical well-being. Our residents report that it makes a difference.

The Evolving Empowerment of You

There has never been a better time in history to live a long, healthy and productive life. As we progress forward, changes in health care delivery, technology and housing will further empower us to take advantage of our increased longevity.

Sardinia

Lessons from Blue Zones

Lifestyle is the Wonder Drug for Longevity

I recently spoke at an event hosted by the Capitol Hill Village entitled Designed for Longevity. One of my co-presenters was Harriett Jameson, a Landscape Designer at Michael Vergason Landscape Architects. She shared stories of her time studying the impact of environments and longevity in Sardinia, Italy, a place with a reputation for both extended lifespan and vigor of its centenarians. She chronicled stories of these elders riding bikes and chopping wood and even Teresa Melledu, age 85, who walks up seven flights of stairs daily.

Sometimes, we think our longevity is closely linked to that of our parents and ancestors. This is not so. Researchers tell us only about 10% of how long we live is dictated by genes. The other 90% is dictated by our lifestyle. In this sense, lifestyle is the wonder drug for longevity. Harriett witnessed this in Sardinia as she saw how landscape design, including walking paths, access to garden space and linkages to others in the community, influenced daily behaviors and routines and positively impacted health and well-being.

What are Blue Zones?

Dan Buettner, founder of Blue Zones (see TED talk “How to Live to be 100+” and book Blue Zones), identifies Blue Zones as areas where people are living to age 100 at rates up to 10 times greater than in the United States, areas where life expectancy is an extra dozen years or so.  Dan teamed up with National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging to find geographic areas that stood out from others. In the end, they studied three areas: Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa, Japan and Loma Linda, California. Sardinia is remarkable in the way the society reveres its elders and models intergenerational activity. Okinawa stands out for its plant-based diet and portion control, sense of daily purpose and ability to maintain very close relationships with a cluster of friends for the duration of their lives. Loma Linda is noted for the importance of their faith (it’s a largely Seventh Day Adventist community), strong social network and connection to nature.

What can be Learned from Blue Zones?

The study of these Blue Zones has led to a number of observations that is informative to those living outside of these marked Blue Zones. Dan and his colleagues have narrowed the lifestyle commonalities across Blue Zones into nine areas, called the Power 9:

  1. Moderate, regular physical activity.
  2. Life purpose.
  3. Stress reduction.
  4. Moderate caloric intake.
  5. Plant-based diet.
  6. Moderate alcohol intake, especially wine.
  7. Engagement in spirituality or religion.
  8. Engagement in family life
  9. Engagement in social life.

Blue Zones Pyramid

Credit: Blue Zones

How Can These Lessons be Incorporated into the Design of Living Environments? 

Both Harriett and Dan speak to the importance of how one’s living environment can nudge someone towards better lifestyle decisions. For Harriett, subtle approaches in landscape design can make it easier for people to be active outside and connect with those around them. For Dan, he points out how certain features in a home can help promote better lifestyle habits.

At Smart Living 360, we feel the same way: designing spaces and environments for enhanced well-being can make a difference. For example, we design fitness rooms that have a wide range of equipment to support uses for people of all ages. Our residents have reported an increase in physical activity. Indeed, research has also shown the impact of convenience on frequency of activity. We design community spaces conducive to social interaction.  These spaces, coupled with a friendly culture facilitated by our Lifestyle Ambassador, have led to increased social engagement, including intergenerational connection. In addition, we provide access to lifestyle and health services intended to make life easier and less stressful, and promote a lifestyle of simplicity which allows people to focus on what’s most important.

The Choice is Yours

Increasing longevity is most beneficial to us if we have a high quality of life in those extra years. The good news is that the choice is largely ours. Each of us can take steps now, like instituting elements of the Power 9, towards a longer and healthier life.

The Stories Rental

Why Rent?

Why Rent?

For generations, a key element of the American Dream has been to own one’s home. This mentality was ushered in at scale during the 1950s when the Federal Housing Authority created attractive financing that led to the suburban housing boom. These homes housed many of today’s 76 million Baby Boomers. Not only has ownership been a goal for many, it has also been a key source of wealth creation, particularly in environments with low interest rates, reasonable leverage and appreciating home values. Why would anyone rent?

As it turns out, there are a number of reasons to rent. For some, it is simply a matter of economics: they do not have the means to own. However, for many, the housing bust of the last decade was a reminder that home ownership was not risk-free. Home ownership currently stands at 64%, down from the peak of 69% in 2004. Some of this drop is a result of the Great Recession, ongoing economic challenges for Millennials and rising housing costs, particularly in major metropolitan markets. But, there is another trend at work: the emergence of renters by choice.

Emergence of Renters by Choice

Renters by choice, by definition, can afford to either own or rent a home. They constitute a wide range of consumers. It can include young professionals and couples looking for flexibility, a desirable location and convenience. It can include single parents or transient families that do not wish to commit to homeownership. Or, it can involve empty nesters and retirees who see the benefit of downsizing and simplifying life and appreciate the financial benefits of renting, particularly in an era of increasing longevity.

What We Learned

We recently asked the question ‘Why Rent?’ to residents of The Stories at Congressional Plaza, a Smart Living 360 community in Rockville, Maryland. We sought out nearly a dozen renters by choice and sat down with them one-on-one to learn about why they chose The Stories and what have they have most appreciated at the community. Attributes mentioned were wide ranging but three key dimensions emerged: location, apartment design and financial sense.

Location, Location, Location

Like much of real estate in general, location reigned supreme.  A parent indicated that “my life revolves around this area – my extended family, my job, my place of worship” and praised the convenience that a central location provides. One woman, who works in the area, liked her proximity to work as she is one of those people who “likes to live and work close together.” One retired couple has lived much of their lives in the area and had “no desire to leave” an area they know so well and have established connections. Others extolled the benefits of having walkable access to restaurants, retail and the metro.

Home is My Castle

One of the frequent criticisms of apartment living is that it does not feel like home. However, residents we interviewed expressed the opposite: they have made The Stories their home. One female resident downsized from a larger apartment in Washington D.C., painted every room and selected custom fixtures and describes her living environment as “her sanctuary.” In another case, a retired couple selected wall paper, added technology features like the Nest and customized their closets. They signed a multi-year lease as they see the “community as their home”.  A single male who has moved many times over his life indicated that he and his dog prefer this environment to the single family house he previously lived in.

Renting Makes Good Financial Sense

A number of these renters by choice were confident renting was the best financial decision for them. One retired couple, who has both owned and rented over their lives, were convicted that “renting costs less”, pointed out the energy efficiencies of apartment living and saw renting as an “insurance policy against bad things that can happen to the real estate industry or a particular home”. Another resident, who is a financial advisor by trade, identified the “option value in renting” as well as the value in freeing up time from home maintenance. One resident sold her townhome to move into The Stories, in part, because of high condominium fees and other maintenance costs. One particularly financially astute resident lives in a one bedroom but owns property in the area. She has “rightsized her living space but is still part of the real estate investment game.”

Shifting Focus from Ownership to What’s Best for Personal Well-Being

For renters by choice, the question is less whether renting or buying is better but what living environment is best for personal well-being. We asked this question of residents surveyed, too. We were pleased to hear that most residents self-reported an improved sense of well-being. For some, it was increased physical activity with the convenience of a well-equipped fitness center or increased walking by living in a walkable area. For others, it was being part of a friendly community where you know your neighbors and opportunities exist to engage in community events. Perhaps the American Dream should be less about realizing home ownership and more about finding a home that helps each of us thrive.

Amazon Echo

“Alexa, can you…?”

Amazon’s Echo/Echo Dot was the hottest gift this holiday season. Amazon refused to disclose the actual number sold but indicated it was in the millions and approximately nine times greater than last holiday season. Indeed, even our family now has “Alexa” in our kitchen.

Alexa has been a hit. In our house, my wife & I use it to track items to buy at the grocery store (conventional grocery lists have never worked very well for us) and our kids use it for a number of smaller tasks, including getting the weather forecast and asking for jokes (“Why should you go on a cheese diet? If you need to cheddar a few pounds!”). People are using Alexa for all sorts of clever uses, including some examples where Alexa has been instrumental in positively impacting their well-being.

Technology Delivering on Some of its Promises, Particularly Artificial Intelligence

Alexa and its integrated capabilities with smart appliances using voice was a highlight earlier this month at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. CES is notorious for showcasing some early stage products that receive buzz but are ultimately duds: the Microsoft SPOT Watch, Netbooks and Google Glass. However, something very significant is happening in the area of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and deep learning, the key drivers behind Alexa. As The Economist outlines in its recent survey, AI, while victim to many false starts, is now gaining momentum with significant venture capital investment and is embedded in many of the recent technology advances from Alexa to autonomous vehicles to IBM’s Watson.

Technology’s Impact on Our Living Environments 

Following suit, Vivek Wadwa, a leading futurist in Silicon Valley, has declared 2017 the year of the bot (Alexa is an example of a bot), in a recent Washington Post article.  I heard Vivek speak last spring at the National Multifamily Housing Council’s Leadership Conference. He highlighted the impact of rapidly changing technologies and how our living environments will need to accommodate these advances to improve people’s quality of life. Examples include the need for physical spaces to support increased volume of deliveries (including via drones!), internet infrastructure to support high definition video, including as it relates to supporting telehealth, and the ability to coordinate on-demand services.

The Smart Living 360 Approach

Technology is a key element in the approach for Smart Living 360 communities. We include advanced equipment in our fitness centers, design spaces for telehealth capabilities and offer residents the ability to customize technology options, such as smart thermostats and smart entertainment systems. A critical design element is to create flexibility for new technologies as they emerge and to make them easy for people to use in an integrated way. We have found that technology advances can be as overwhelming as they can be helpful and helping people understand what’s most useful and how to use them can be very valuable. Our Lifestyle Ambassador takes the lead on this effort.

However, as important as technology is and the inevitably greater role it will have in our lives and managing our health, we see technology as taking a back seat to the critical importance of face-to-face connection, a subject of a 2016 blog.

There is a Limit to this Alexa

While Vivek Wadwa points out the benefits of these emerging technologies, he is also quick to point out the ethical and health challenges that many of these advances introduce. Much of our society struggles with social isolation and depression and we mustn’t let these digital friends take the place of real friends. According to a recent report in New Scientist, hundreds of thousands of people say ‘Good morning’ to Alexa every day, half a million people have professed their love for it and more than a quarter of a million have proposed marriage to it.

Embracing the benefits of technology while creating boundaries for its use will continue to be a key challenge of our age.  Fortunately, healthy living environments can help us strike the proper balance.