Some Things Never Grow Old Video Series, Part 4 - Nest: Fostering Community and the Power of Your Environment

I was inspired by the squirrels at Walt Disney World recently.  Unlike the skittish squirrels in my yard, they had no fear. They walked among the crowd, stopped for snacks, waited alongside us in the lines — and I could be wrong, but I think one posed for a picture I took! If they had passed the height marker, I think they may have even gone on Splash Mountain with us. Why?

Perhaps it is because the Disney squirrels are surrounded daily by a constant flow of people on a mission.  They can thrive in this environment because they have become "socialized" and hence have more opportunity for food and squirrel happiness. Put one of the squirrels from my yard in this environment and it would have run for cover immediately — but my guess is that in no time at all, it would be wearing Mickey ears with the rest of us.

It got me thinking about the broader impact of changing environments has on people, and specifically on our aging populations as they transition from working life to retirement life. Left to our own devices — like the squirrels in my back yard — most of us would become puppets of our own environments until we are forced to adapt. 

We set our social baselines at the happenstance of everyday life.  Sometimes we rise slightly above baseline and sometimes we fall slightly below it, but overall we primarily coast through our social norms. We are attached to "communities" such as our work, our neighborhoods, our hobby groups. But when one of those changes and we lose daily engagement with that community, there is no roadmap for what’s next — we have to invent it.

In this video, seniors talk about what community means to them:

Fostering Community from Business Innovation Factory on Vimeo.

The aging transition is a very different from the transition to college, which for most people includes an entire baked-in community of support, a purposely architected infrastructure both on and off campus, and a large community of like-minded young minds looking to grow and learn and have fun. In contrast, the aging community has only a resource-strained, "local" senior center or community center, and many of these struggle to raise participation rates, even with newer more “vibrant” programs that are being designed to engage a new generation of seniors.  

Could this be because seniors are not looking for the campus mentality, with typecasted solutions, but rather exciting ways to engage more deeply in the community as a whole? Would they rather have activities and opportunities that appeal to their very diverse sets of interests and circumstances? Would they prefer to think about what they really want in this stage of their lives and then help to design it, so it will fit their individual needs?

“If we are about community, it’s not insular, it’s about reaching out to the rest of the neighborhood because that’s part of our community too." —retired woman discussing senior living communities

What if we could re-imagine the senior center or public community center to focus less on a one-size-fits-all program delivery system, and instead focus more on a collaborative program design service? Such a service could bring like-minded people together to design a vibrant community that would change the very relationship between people and the organizations that serve them.

In co-creating the programs and services that become part of the fabric of their community, seniors — especially recent retirees who still want to engage in meaningful work — will find not only a sense of purpose, but people and activities that truly interest them.  And we are not talking about just changing a class offering from basket-weaving to Zumba — rather, we are talking about re-imagining the entire business model of senior centers.

Here are some thoughts:

  • In a Distributed Model for Senior Centers, we could rethink the Senior Center to be less of a "destination" and more of a networked experience, shifting to an embedded neighborhood delivery program. Rather than build new facilities, we could leverage existing facilities by repurposing them for different activities at different times of day.  For example, a salon may offer low-cost "stitch and bitch" sessions for the over-65 crowd, with a foot soak and massage a few days a week during their down times, or a yogurt shop may host book talks from local authors. By distributing the fun across the town or city, seniors can meet new people in new places, feel less isolated or hidden from the rest of the community,  and perhaps even learn something new.
  • On a larger scale, the Downtown Project in Las Vegas is terrific inspiration for this, using the voices and resources of the entire community to galvanize the creation of a vibrant, community-focused large city, empowering and inspiring people to follow their passions.
  • Alternatively, in The Co-Located Model, the Senior Center could become a hub that brings resource-strained nonprofits — or even better, exciting new entrepreneurial start-ups — together in one space, allowing for exciting inter-generational and intra-programmatic interactions.
  • We could also imagine an Open Space Model, where the Senior Center becomes a physical asset open to all seniors who have entrepreneurial ideas that could benefit the community. We are inspired by Open Space Models such as: Kaboom, a national nonprofit dedicated to saving "play" for America’s children, uses a community-build model to create kid-inspired playgrounds. The Independent Project, an alternative school-within-a-school, is run by students themselves. And Design Museum Boston has no permanent address — rather, it “turns the museum inside out” by turning the entire city into a museum.
  • Finally, rather than polling, or simply assuming a generic set of activities geared to the "typical" aging adult, we could embrace a Purposeful Community Model. This open-ended model would match community skills, resources, and interests with community challenges. For example, the Golden Girls Network is a housing model and movement that allows homeowners to invite others to participate in shared living arrangements. The Women Roofers is a self-organized group of aging women formed around a need for home repairs in their community, while creating a sense of confidence and pride that spills over into other areas of life.

These new "Senior Center" business models transform the role of seniors, from  consumers to co-creators, makers, owners, investors, and providers.  Seniors with an abundance of creativity, time, and initiative would become a valued community resource. What wonderful ways to find community, comfort, and a winter’s supply of "nuts and berries" to keep you satiated.

And just when I thought I’d never be inspired by a squirrel.

Links to other posts in the Connected Aging video series.


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