life enrichment centers
With the aging of the US population coming to the forefront as an issue of increasing importance for the near and long term future, the lack of residential living options for seniors will be a growing challenge for society. Not only is it currently difficult to get new residential living projects approved and built in most locales, but the “Great Recession” has exacerbated the shortages by causing almost a complete halt to the development of new retirement communities and housing projects across the country for the past two or three years. This gap in new development will likely be felt acutely as the Baby Boom generation begins to move into retirement in ever rising numbers for the next 20 years. With these demographic and economic issues as a backdrop, it is incumbent upon professionals in the aging services world to continue exploring new approaches that help older adults to age in place in their own homes. In that vein, a group of senior living industry leaders have been working on a new concept, the Social Enrichment Center. This group of leaders combines the expertise of several professional disciplines to address issues of health and independence while also focusing on strengthening the relationship and interdependence of seniors to their local towns, cities and neighborhoods. This group’s vision is to assist municipalities, developers and community stakeholders to establish Social Enrichment Centers to enhance the opportunities for seniors to flourish in the neighborhoods and communities where they choose to live.
The Social Enrichment Center (SEC) is a new approach that combines diverse methodologies like lifelong learning, socialization and activities programs, environmentally sensitive design, intergenerational programming, and creative land use planning to help produce not just a place for seniors to gather but a local neighborhood truly dedicated to enhancing their lifestyles and supporting their independence. In many ways, the SEC takes the ubiquitous senior center idea of a central meeting place for local senior citizens and amplifies its impact through a focused effort on personal growth and connectedness to the local community. Starting with a building that can be converted office or retail space, the SEC has an internal focus on programming and services that are appealing for seniors: a café or coffee shop open to the public of all ages, cultural and educational sessions, preventative care programs and health screening for seniors, and a computer center can be at the core. Other options can include music and other cultural programs, exercise and fitness programming and purely social events.
With this as a foundation, the SEC’s outward focus includes working with municipal government to remove physical barriers that may limit the mobility of local seniors: changing the layout of sidewalks, streets, and parks to allow better access by seniors and increased walkability and bike riding; positively affecting land planning and zoning regulations; working with local law enforcement to enhance public safety; embracing environmentally friendly urban landscapes by planting trees and flowers; and the creation of local van service or public transportation to reduce automobile usage. The external focus is to make the SEC a focal point for a wide range of programs and activities by linking it to nearby neighborhoods and residential buildings through a network of pedestrian friendly routes, paths and sidewalk.
Depending upon the amount of space in the SEC, the opportunities for programs and services are many:
Creative and fine art classes
Exercise classes such as tai chi, yoga and zumba
National and world news discussion groups
Seminars on diverse topics: writing, investment, and cooking
Café or pub offering light snacks and meals
Preventative care and health screening rooms
Child friendly spaces for day care and foster grandparenting
Activities spaces for meeting, education and movies
Outdoor areas that include patios, fire pits, and game courts
Game room for cards and billiards
Public Private Partnerships
Among the many unique aspects of the SEC is the opportunity for partnerships between public and private entities. One example would be the linkage between a local not-for-profit organization who would sponsor the Center and the municipal government that would work cooperatively with the sponsor to address barriers to access and safety for local seniors. Other potential supporters for such an endeavor can include the chamber of commerce, neighborhood associations, the local historical society, and the rotary club. Because the concept can involve altering the fabric of a downtown business district to make it more pedestrian friendly and walkable for citizens of all ages, there are ample opportunities for cooperative relationships with merchants and local businesses as well. The linkages between the private and public sectors could also extend to sharing cost for improving local infrastructure and establishing programs and services. With a new SEC at the center of a downtown area or developed near the shopping district, the level of activity at different hours of the day can be expected to increase, thereby supporting local shops, restaurants and local businesses.
Planning and Financial Implications
The establishment of a new SEC would require financial commitments from several entities, including the sponsor, local government, and possibly local businesses. The sponsoring organization, be it a not-for-profit entity or a for-profit corporation like a local developer, would need to commit resources necessary to host the SEC. With the effects of the recession still being felt in many localities, this may involve the redevelopment or renovation of an underutilized or vacant retail or commercial structure that may be available at a below market price. The location of the SEC is a key to success so careful consideration must be given to the location of the Center.
The local municipal government will need to support the endeavor on several levels. First, there will be a need to support potential changes to local ordinances so as to encourage land use planning approaches that will facilitate required changes: walkable and bike friendly sidewalks and roadways; environmentally friendly planting plans; and transportation planning. The local government may also need to commit funds for changes to sidewalks and curbs, plus other infrastructure upgrades (e.g., public benches in parks and along walking routes for seniors, improved street lights). Changes to public safety patrols and local policing may also be necessary to alter perceptions of accessibility to downtown areas, particularly in the evening hours.
Finally, as noted above, financial support from business groups and local merchants can be key to funding needed improvements and to overcoming opposition to changes to local ordinances. Planning for a new SEC should really be a community-wide exercise.
Another possible source of financial support for a new SEC can be from government grants targeted to community renewal. Private foundations can also be a source of grant funding for innovative approaches to serving senior citizens.