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REDESIGN MAINSTREET. FORGET SHADY ACRES. (PART 1)

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.