The senior living industry has put much time and energy into coming up with a housing model to serve the next generation of older adults. But for Garden Spot Communities CEO Steve Lindsey, the answer doesn’t only lie with older adults.
Instead, the organization is exploring ways to create community for people from all walks of life and all generations, which could mean going beyond age-restricted housing. Lindsey believes the concept is best suited for an urban location, where different people share spaces and mingle naturally.
“They start to know each other’s names, and they start to develop relationships very naturally. It’s not a program thing, it’s just real life,” Lindsey said during a recent appearance on the Senior Housing News podcast Transform. “That’s what we’re envisioning: a place where folks of all ages live together and share life together, and something that looks and feels pretty normal, pretty natural.”
This “it-takes-a-village” approach to senior living draws inspiration from Lindsey’s own small-town upbringing.
“People just connected and shared ideas, shared experiences and shared skills across the generations,” he said. “And it happened because we all kind of lived in that same space. It wasn’t your space, it was our space, and I think that’s what we have to get to.”
As CEO of Garden Spot, Lindsey knows a thing or two about senior living innovation. Over the years, he’s spearheaded a variety of efforts that include the launching of a hot air balloon and a pocket neighborhood concept at Garden Spot Village, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) with more than 1,000 residents. in New Holland, Pennsylvania. Garden Spot also owns and manages Maple Farm, a person-centered skilled nursing facility in Akron, Pennsylvania, which is a little more than 10 miles away from the CCRC.
On how Garden Spot’s pocket neighborhood concept fared in the pandemic:
We’re really excited about that whole model. It performed well for us initially. People moved in and they were very complimentary about the life that they were living there, the connection they had to their neighbors, the relationships that they were able to share.
We were actually in the midst of an expansion with our pocket neighborhood when Covid hit. We were building another 50 cottages, and four different neighborhoods. We completed that construction as we worked through the pandemic. People moved in and what we found was that it really functioned well because people had those pre-existing relationships. They knew their neighbors well, and because they had that sense of place and that sense of neighborhood, they had a naturally existing bubble when the pandemic hit.
Whereas a lot of people out in the world tended to hunker down in their homes and felt very isolated, we encouraged our people to think about that whole bubble concept, and find their bubble partners and their bubble mates. It was very natural for them to continue to maintain relationships because there were great outdoor spaces and front porches for them to use. So, it just really fit the bill as we went through a challenging time. And as we come out of that challenging time, it just continues to grow and deepen the relationships that were already existent there.
We’re continuing to grow the concept. We still have some land available and we’re working on a master plan to continue with that. And we certainly think that a portion of that will have additional pocket neighborhoods in it. But we’re looking at some other pretty neat concepts as we go into that, [that] would have a little bit higher density of housing as we go forward.
On new concepts Garden Spot is working on:
There are some clear trends based on the needs of people. And one of the interesting things is how trends tend to shift, and how they change. But our deep-seated human needs, wants and desires haven’t changed in thousands of years.
If we continue to hold those needs up as our north star, and then we reflect on the consumer trends and shifts that are occurring around us, it gives us an opportunity to create something that is on trend but at the same time also timeless.
One of the things we’re always looking at is how do we create community? And how do we create opportunities for connection and for purpose, and give people an opportunity to have that kind of home base where they branch out, where they’re finding their purpose, and where they’re finding their calling.
We’re looking at urban [senior living] as an opportunity. We certainly believe that that’s a great opportunity going forward. Our goal is to combine that urban experience with a truly authentic intergenerational experience, and put those together. There is this whole group of people out there that says, ‘I’m not sure I want to live in an age-restricted community.’ That gives us an opportunity to create something different, to create authentic community.
It’s something we’re pretty good at and we’ve had a lot of experience creating community, but it’s always been a little more on the age-restricted side. How can we use that same skill set and those same development opportunities and lessons learned to create something that appeals to a wider generation of people? And, create this central point in the community where people come together, cross over that generational divide?
One of the things we get really excited about is when older adults begin to take the time to reflect on their life — to harvest the wisdom of their life, to take stock of their life experiences — and then use all of that to invest it into the lives of younger generations. It’s people who have something to say, who have lessons to share, who have wisdom to impart to other people; and there’s such a need for that in society today. So, if we can create those communities where generations come together, live together, share life together, we think that’s a really exciting opportunity for the future.
As we researched it, we found that some of the models that existed that were known as “intergenerational” were really an age-restricted community, or an age-restricted building that was dropped into a larger community. And that’s not bad, but our hope and our dream is that we can create something that’s a little more authentic.
In the little town where I grew up, there were only a few hundred people living there. But everybody knew each other, and it was all different generations. Older people looked after the children, regardless of whether they were their own children. People just connected and shared ideas, shared experiences and shared skills across the generations. And it happened because we all kind of lived in that same space. It wasn’t your space, it was our space, and I think that’s what we have to get to.
There are certainly all kinds of challenges in terms of housing laws and those kinds of things. But our feeling is that we can serve older adults best, at least that segment of older adults who want to share in an intergenerational life, by moving beyond our preset ideas of what senior living looks like, and get into an experience where people are actually living next door to each other, sharing the common spaces and sharing in life.
We have to think beyond just being architects, beyond just being interior designers, in creating beautiful spaces. We have to think beyond our senior living skill set of providing great programs and services. And we have to create places that are authentic, where people … are bumping into the same people, day-in and day-out. They start to know each other’s names, and they start to develop relationships very naturally. It’s not a program thing, it’s just real life. And so that’s what we’re envisioning: a place where folks of all ages live together, and share life together and something that looks and feels pretty normal, pretty natural. We’re still in the early stages, but that’s what we’re working on trying to develop.
On what Lindsey is optimistic about right now:
As we look into the future, if you just look at the sheer demographics of the world around us, and realize how many folks are going to be coming into our sector in the future, we have huge opportunities to meet needs, and not just from a business perspective or just from a revenue perspective.
We live in a culture in this century in America that doesn’t really have a place for older adults. How amazing would it be if we took on that challenge, if we re-crafted that idea of what it means to grow old in this society, and if we gave people not only a voice, but also an opportunity to shape their voice? And an opportunity to learn what it means to become a person of wisdom, and what it means to become that true elder in the tribe, so to speak?
I think it would be naive of any of us to not be a little bit worried. We just emerged from this dark cloud of Covid-19, and came out and let the sun hit our face. And then we look on the horizon, and see more clouds forming.
As we look to the future, we have a little bit of comfort knowing that if we have to go back into another scenario [like in 2020], we’ve got some lessons learned, we’ve got some tools in the toolbox, and we can capitalize on that to make sure that we still give people an opportunity to live fully, even if they have to live in a pandemic. And I think that’s key.
One of the things that we saw through this initial stage of this pandemic was the impact of isolation, that ongoing anxiety of not knowing what’s next, the constant change. But we are resilient people. And even our older adults that we serve have lived long lives, and they’ve seen a lot. This was different than anything they’ve seen before, but we’ve seen people really be resilient in the midst of that. So, that gives me hope that even if we have to go into another period where things are challenging, that we can do it even more successfully than we did last time.
On attracting and retaining workers in the middle of a staffing crisis:
I was talking with our residents recently, and I described it this way: I said it almost feels like a UFO traveled over our country and abducted half the workforce.
We’re struggling with that in the same ways that many others are, and we’re trying to find our footing and figure out what the key is to success going forward. Certainly, wages play a part of that.
We hear that constant drumbeat that we’ve got to be able to pay more, and I don’t disagree with that. I think all of us would love to be able to pay high wages to every single person that works in our organization. But we also experienced that tension with the payment systems that exist right now. In the health care areas of our campus, Medicaid doesn’t cover half the costs of providing care to people. And even the residential areas of our campuses, people who are paying for all of this are living on fixed incomes. And the higher the wages go up, the more challenging it is to offer a product to mid-market people who are not very wealthy.
As a country, I think that’s a bit of a crisis, and we need to address that and think about who we are as a people, and how we care for and provide opportunities for the less-than-wealthy. That’s certainly a struggle.
One of the really beautiful aspects of what we do is that we have this opportunity to tie in the meaning and value of serving an older generation. That intergenerational connection I was just talking about a little bit ago happens day-in and day-out with our team members and our residents. One of the things we have worked really hard on — and I think it’s paying some dividends now — is developing a singular culture in our organization where it’s not a workplace culture, an employee culture and a separate resident culture. But it’s one group of people living and working and sharing life together.
Those deep relationships that occur really pay off. People begin to get hold of the impact of the work that they do. We had a woman who was retiring out of our laundry — this was a couple years ago now. As she neared her retirement, she went to her supervisor and said, ‘I want you to know, you don’t need to worry about filling my position. I’m already interviewing people to take my place.’ He looked a little surprised, and she said, ‘This job is too important to leave it up to chance that you’ll get the right person. I can’t leave my job without knowing that the right person is in that role, because there’s so many people that count on us and what we do.’
That is huge. If we can get people to understand that every role in every organization has that kind of responsibility, but also an impact on the lives of other people, I think that’s huge. That sense of purpose and meaning at work helps us significantly invest in people’s future, and in giving people an opportunity to think about what their goals are and how they want to approach life.
Years ago, we got rid of our performance appraisal system and swapped it out with a coaching model. Every year instead of sitting down and being critiqued by a supervisor, all of our team members sit down and talk about their goals. ‘What do I want to do this year? How do I want to live? And how do I want to approach my job and my life?’ And then their coaches are always there to help support that and encourage that and bring resources to bear so that they can be successful.
We just have to understand the opportunities that people have, and create better opportunities in our organizations for people to learn and grow and become the best version of themselves as they come to work every day. And I think if people have a vision of what that could look like, it starts to look much more attractive. We clearly have to pay better, we have to pay a living wage — that’s table stakes. Beyond that, I think we have so many resources that other businesses don’t have to create lives of purpose and lives of opportunity.
On Garden Spot working together with other senior living providers in Lancaster County:
One of the things that has been to our benefit over the years is that we really have developed this sense of collegiality, that we’re in it together. As we went into the crisis, we entered into that time with a mindset of abundance. It’s so easy to develop a mindset of scarcity; that we have to circle the wagons, that we have to protect what’s ours. But instead, the different organizations in Lancaster County really came together.
As a group, when one would learn something, they would share it with the others. There was an organization near where we are whose maintenance team figured out how to rework their HVAC system to create negative pressure. Instead of just sitting on that and thinking they had the advantage over everybody else, they shared that so that everybody could do well in that regard, and so that we could all protect our people and in a more effective way. Policies on window visits, policies on infection control and cleaning, strategies for how we encourage staff to get vaccinated — all of that and so much more became fodder for discussion.
A group of about nine businesses have formed a joint venture in the midst of all this, to help support each other. We were talking about staffing, and we have been working through the pandemic and just before that on an employer resource network where a group of employers — in this case, about half of them are senior living organizations — come together and hire a success coach to come alongside entry level employees who are just starting, to be their coach and advocate and confidant and mentor.
The whole idea is, if we come together, we can take on that extra level of support for our team members in a way that doesn’t break the bank for any of us. You can’t do that if there is a spirit of competition. But you can do that if you have that sense of yes, we compete, but we also cooperate.
On how the senior living industry can stay relevant in the future:
It really takes a lot of effort to not get stuck in a rut, to be sensitive and tuned into the changes that are occurring in our marketplace around us.
We have to recognize that we’re in a post-demographic society, that we can’t fit people into neat little boxes based on their age, or their race, gender, faith or any other thing. People want to experience what they’re seeing all around them in the world, and that gives us a great challenge. But it gives us an enormous opportunity to shape something new and different. If we’re going to do that, then we have to be intentional about looking at some of those trends — and in taking some risk of failure, because that’s certainly a part of it.
I already talked about the urban intergenerational experience, and that’s something that we’re excited about learning more about and developing more as we go forward.
We have a new part of our Sycamore Springs campus that we’re master planning, and we have some fun new concepts that we think are going to not just create a great senior living community, but create a great community. And our goal is to not create a great place for older adults to age, but a great place where everybody would want to live.
I think affordability is going to be a key. As we look at this aging demographic, we recognize that there is such a huge group that could never afford to live in an existing senior living campus. So, what do we do? How do we respond to that? Trying new ways and finding new ways to meet that need is going to be huge. One of the things we’ve been working on is thinking about how we can create revenue streams to support our mission and support our purpose that are maybe independent of our residents’ bank accounts. That’s certainly something that we have to think a little more entrepreneurially, we have to think a little more creatively. And we have to kind of build this whole new model as we go forward. But recognize that it has to be flexible, it has to be nimble, and it has to be able to change. Because by next year — or three years from now, or five years from now — the world is going to look and feel very, very different than it does today.
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