Well Being


Longevity: Nature vs. Nurture?

My grandparents had a strong influence on my life.  My maternal grandfather, “Ace” as his basketball teammates used to call him, wrote scores of letters to me and encouraged me to play hoops which I still enjoy today.  From Pittsburgh, my paternal grandfather, an academic researcher and owner of dozens of patents, influenced my interest in innovation and sparked my loyalty to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Of course, one of the reasons they had a big impact was that they lived long and healthy lives.  Each of my grandparents lived past age 75 with my paternal grandmother living into her early 90s.  My parents are also healthy and are in their early 70s.  I feel blessed to have good genes and to have comfort that I am predisposed to also live a long, healthy life.

Or so I thought.  Actually, it turns out that as we get older, our lifestyle is more important than our DNA in influencing the length and quality of our life.  Yes, as Dr. Laura Carstensen, Founding Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, points out in her book, A Long Bright Future, “except in extreme cases — when an inherited illness causes family members to die before age 60 — ancestral longevity isn’t a very important predictor of individual longevity.”

In short, as you age, your lifestyle is more important than your DNA.

While this may be disappointing to people like me with good genes, I think it is a net positive for all of us.  It means that we really can influence the trajectory of our lives though our life choices.


Well-Being 101

So what is lifestyle?  What do good choices look like?

One approach is to focus on well-being.

Bill Novelli, a professor at McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University and former CEO of AARP – and moderator of The Future of Housing For Grown-Ups: A National and Local Perspective hosted at The Stories (read a summary of this event in Forbes), first introduced me to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.  This self-reported index focused on five areas:

  1. Purpose: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
  2. Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life
  3. Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
  4. Community: liking where you live, feeling safe, and having pride in your community
  5. Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily

The index has been tracking well-being along these measures since 2008 and has data from over 2 million surveys.  In its most recent survey, among the largest 190 metropolitan markets nationwide, Naples, FL ranked first and Charleston, West Virginia scored the lowest.

Well-being is of increasing interest.  To an individual, as mentioned above, it can help influence the trajectory of your life.  To companies, improved well-being can reduce employee health costs.   To health systems and our government, higher well-being across a population can help manage health care costs as we move from fee for service to value based health care as part of the affordable care act.


Rethinking the Role of Housing

Sometimes, we think of housing as simply a place to just hang our hat, but it can be so much more.  What if housing played a key role in elevating personal well-being and such options were available for people of all ages and stages and income levels?  What would this look like?

I believe it starts with an intentional physical blueprint as well as an intentional culture to help bring out the best in each person.  Physical design elements, such as spacious and well-located common spaces, can help promote social connection.   Universal design features and state-of-the-art fitness centers in a walkable location can help improve physical health.  Resident-led programming and greater connectivity to each other can help people feel a greater sense of pride and security in their community.  Greater ties to resources in the local community – often facilitated by some onsite staff – can also elevate purpose (see my three minute fast pitch talk at the 2016 Encore Conference on the opportunities to create communities of purpose).  If thoughtfully and efficiently conceived, such an environment can be fiscally wise, too.

With so many changes and advances in our culture, this is an exciting time to rethink the role of housing.  It can become a foundation for personal well-being and have an impact on all of us ranging grandparents to empty nesters to young families to young couples to singles.  As my grandfather, Ace, would often pen to me, this is an exciting time to be alive.

Mainstreet Map


Carlota might be the most well-read person I ever met. Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, among others, seem to be her friends. She seemed to literally exist in some of her favorite books.

Carlota was an older neighbor growing up. Sadly, outside of her housekeeper, my mom, sister and I seemed to be the only other people that visited her. She lived in a single family home in the suburbs but was invisible to many. At some point along the way, she would have had a better life in a different living environment.


About 75% of people 65 and older live in the suburbs and the vast majority of these people live in single family homes. One challenge is that many of these older homes were not designed with older adults in mind. There are complications related to stairs, antiquated bathrooms and kitchens, and other features of older homes. It can be complicated and expensive to retrofit. Home maintenance is a hassle and often expensive; some costs, such as for a new roof, can be substantial and unexpected – not good for people on fixed income. These homes are often not energy efficient and equipping them with the latest technology can be very challenging and, sometimes, not feasible.

But challenges extend beyond the physical environment. Most suburban homes are not close to services and amenities; they were designed with the car in mind. Therefore, people need to drive to Main Street or The City often to get things they need. This distance coupled with the geographic dispersion of single family homes makes it difficult for services to be delivered efficiently to the home.

But the biggest challenge is that of isolation: individual isolation. Researchers tells us that isolation is more dangerous to your health than smoking.

As neighborhoods change, social networks change and it is not unusual for older adults to not be as socially connected as they once were. This was certainly the case with Carlota.


Carlota had no interest in moving from her home. There were a few reasons, but perhaps the biggest reason was that she couldn’t imagine moving miles away to live just with old people. She got a thrill when our young family would visit; she didn’t want to lose this connection. See, she couldn’t fathom moving into Shady Acres.


The primary option we provide for older adults is Shady Acres, the retirement home miles away on the hill where all the old people live. Here, even more so than a suburban home, you are far away from Main Street and The City. It just doesn’t feel like home. For many, there can be a sense of giving up control. Even just giving up.

But the challenges go beyond location and mindset. Shady Acres often tries to recreate Main Street. There are multiple dining venues, beauty salons, programming spaces and so on. It’s expensive to build and even more expensive to staff and maintain. Correspondingly, it is expensive to live in Shady Acres. Particularly as we enter an era where pensions are less prevalent, few people can afford Shady Acres.

But the biggest problem is that it is separate and apart from society. It’s all old people. See the biggest challenge is also isolation: institutional isolation.

What if we flipped things upside down? What if, instead of being far away, we created housing environments for grown ups that were amidst people of all ages? What if, instead of having people on their own for services or paying for bundled services they didn’t want or need, we created a way for services to come when they were needed? What if, instead of dated single family homes or outmoded floorplans at Shady Acres, we created an attractive, forward thinking built environment that support health & well-being?

What if we could trade isolation for connection?

What would “Sunny Mid-Rise” look like in walkable, mixed-use, intergenerational environment?

We’ll explore this further next month.



Ryan & Betty Cobb - 9-22-15At age 29, I did something a bit unusual.  I moved into a retirement community.  I left Silicon Valley with the notion that there was an opportunity to improve the quality of lives of older adults through innovation.  I figured there was no better place to start to learn about older adults than to live among them.  I headed to Atlanta.


I have always had a fondness for older adults, or “senior citizens” as my grandparents and their peers didn’t mind being called.   Though we lived across the country from my extended family, I was close to my grandparents, especially my mom’s father who routinely wrote me long letters about life.  He must have spent hours on these letters – hunting and pecking for the right letter on his well-worn typewriter.  His letters on the Great Depression were particularly detailed.  I have kept them all and, from time to time, I re-read them.  I often wish I read these letters a little closer when I was younger.

But the most impactful life experience that fueled my interest in older adults was a buddy program established by my sixth grade teacher, Marge Zellner.  Through her program, we played the recorder and sat down with residents of Lytton Gardens, an Assisted Living community in Palo Alto.  I was matched with Melba Rowlands.  Melba was blind but otherwise healthy.   She had no immediate family in the area. We filled a void for each other. While the program was intended to be just for sixth grade, I so enjoyed my time and relationship with Melba that we met regularly for three years, until I was absorbed in the demands and distractions of high school.


Even though it was only for a few weeks, I couldn’t talk my wife into joining me in living in the retirement community.  I warned her of the risks.  Sure enough, I was the only male on my floor and only person under 75.  The ladies loved me.  Cookies, brownies, love notes streamed in.  I had a number of meals with my friend, Betty Cobb.  Betty loved living in a retirement community.  She loved the comradery.  She loved all her meals in the dining room.  She loved bingo.  Just like my grandparents, she didn’t mind being called a senior.

One day, I got a call from my mom.  I could tell she was concerned.  She was wondering what career path would involve living in a retirement community.  This was not the life she envisioned for her son. Thinking quickly on my feet I said “Mom, I’m doing this for you.  I’m trying to create a place that you’d want to live in.” She felt relieved but also empowered.  She said, “Good because I’m not moving into one of those communities when I get older. I want be around people of all ages, not just old people.  I can’t possibly imagine going to the same dining room every day.  I don’t play bingo.  And don’t dare call me a senior.”  Do you know anyone that feels that way?


Sure, Betty and my mom are from different generations and have different preferences.   But’s it’s so much more than that. We’re entering a new era of longevity. If you are 65 and healthy & educated, odds are you are going to live past 90.  It’s a whole 25 years beyond traditional retirement.

But it’s not just about older people; we’re all living longer.  They say the first person to live to 150 years is alive today.  It’s crazy. It’s difficult to understand the full ramifications of this change.  Researchers are telling us that your lifestyle is more important than your DNA.  It turns out that how long your parents lived isn’t a very important predictor of individual longevity.  It’s becoming more about choosing a lifestyle than enhances your well-being.  This is something that’s important at any age.  If we’re now blessed with these extra years, the real goal, I believe, should be to make these years the most rewarding and fulfilling as possible, not just exist and wait to die.

In the next blog post, I will explore the current housing options for today’s older adults and how they tend to suffer from a common and significant challenge: isolation.  I will also introduce a new approach – one that is anchored on connection and integration into the broader community.


FrederickMom-200x300You didn’t hear it from me but two years ago my mom turned 70 years old. While she may qualify for “senior” discounts, don’t make the mistake of calling her a senior.  Even the word ‘grammy’ is reserved for just three people, all of whom are presently ten years old and younger. See, she will not let herself be defined by her age or supposed limitations. She is constantly looking for ways to learn, grow and find new areas of purpose. Take technology for example. Several years ago she didn’t have a cell phone. Now she has a laptop, iPhone 6 and fitbit. She’s ready to Skype on a moment’s notice. She’s even been recruited by an Apple Store to teach a class on genealogy using Apple products.

She plans to rewrite “retirement”; her post-full-time work years will look far different for her than for her mother.

One of the gifts of our modern age is increased longevity. In 1900, life expectancy for woman was 51 and increased by approximately 30 years by the end of the century. Today it is 82. Some predict that by 2050 it will be 87. And, for those healthy today at age 65, they can expect to live at least until the age of 90.

The main stream media has caught a hold of this trend. There has been a litany of recent newspaper and magazines articles exploring this topic. A recent Time magazine cover article featured a baby with the caption “This Baby Could Live to be 142 years.” Feature articles in the Atlantic Monthly have explored the upside and downside of this phenomenon, most notably October 2014’s cover article “What Happens When We All Live to 100?.” The Wall Street Journal has a periodic section and portion of their website dedicated to older adults called Encore.

However, nothing more succinctly captures the implications of increased longevity than the “The Big Idea in 4 min – Coming of Age in an Aging America” produced by PBS.

All these analyses point to profound impact for all us. Our government institutions – including but not limited to Social Security, Medicare and US Housing & Urban Development Department (HUD) – need to change. It also means we will have to change the way we think about financial management, career planning, health & wellness, housing, health care and so on. We will also have to get more comfortable embracing technology and the ever rapid pace of change associated with it.

But none of the implications are more significant than how we view and structure our life course. With good fortune – and a healthy lifestyle – many of us will be granted new chapters in life and opportunities for greater significance and purpose. What we will we do with this opportunity?

Smart Living 360 was created for people who wish to lean into these new opportunities associated with increased longevity. I have spoken with many dozens of people about these shifts. I have met with people in their homes, at coffee shops and at conferences. I have partnered with design thinking programs at Hopkins/MICA and Darden to ascertain insights. I firmly believe that we are on the cusp of new ways of living and being for literally millions of people. People just don’t want to do life the same way prior generations did.

Smart Living 360 is a development and operating company focused on delivering innovative living experiences with a particular emphasis on well-being. We believe that many people wish to rewrite the standard life course, opting for a life of ongoing engagement, purpose and growth. We create inspired homes in walkable, intergenerational mixed-use urban and suburban areas.

This blog will explore many of the dimensions of living an inspired life at any age. We will look at strategies and stories of those who have embraced next chapter living. We will look at tactics for successful well-being. We will report on the ever increasing role of technology. We’ll see how many of these factors play a crucial role in one’s optimal living environment. We believe the best is yet to come. My mom certainly believes this.

We welcome you to join us in this journey.