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Significance …the Missing Amenity

By G. Richard Ambrosius –

“Our life is what our thoughts make it.”

– Marcus Aurelius in Meditations

In a 2002 lecture entitled Mind Alert, Dr. Paul Nussbaum posed the question, “What do older people want?” He then provided an answer that many developers and operators of retirement communities seem to have forgotten. “What they want most is independence. They need a role and a purpose. They need to be loved and they need someone or something to love.”

While Alzheimer’s disease has become the number one fear of older Americans, we are just beginning to discover that perhaps our systems, services and attitudes toward aging are a contributing factor to many health issues that haunt older adults. As Dr. Nussbaum observed, “we have developed an excellent acute care system to deal with disease; but older people need chronic, not acute care, and we have no chronic care system – we have nursing homes which 1/3 of the country would rather die than use.”

“Much of what we think about aging is not aging at all, but disuse,” states Dr. Walter Bortz of Stanford Medical School.

The 1970s launched three decades of developing programs and services to care for the “elderly,” which was somehow defined as everyone over the age of 60. Hundreds of agencies, programs, services have been created and funded to meet real and perceived needs. Now, billions of dollars later, our well meaning efforts have perhaps done as much harm as good. We have replaced purpose with pills; productive lives with retirement packages; personal significance with shallow volunteer opportunities; and meaningful community involvement with mindless activities. In fact, one might make a case, that “retirement” itself is a root cause of rising healthcare costs, the growing incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and depression.

With the new millennium, organizations such as Civic Ventures in San Francisco have launched programs to involve older adults in meaningful roles. The Eden Alternative and founder Bill Thomas’ innovative Greenhouse Project began redefining long term health care through the eyes of recipient and treating the body, mind and the human spirit in the process. Older adults are playing increasingly active roles in all three business sectors. But there is still much to do as systemic ageism remains the last bastion of discrimination.

As Dr. Roger Landry eloquently put it, “Successful agers are not fatalistic about the slings and arrows of aging, but actively intervene to change the course of what was previously considered inevitable. They identify risks and work with available medical knowledge and technology to change the future.” That’s not a bad prescription for how to go about changing the way be design, develop, market and operation “retirement” communities. Let’s start by never again using “retirement” to define a dynamic community where wisdom is celebrated, members are involved in decisions that affect them and everyone is committed to making a difference.

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