Archive for the ‘Company Spotlight’ Category

Merrill Gardens: Designing Senior Communities that Forge Intergenerational Connections

merrill-gardens-at-the-university-courtyardIn Bill Pettit’s opinion, the courtyard at Merrill Gardens at The University is one of the best in Seattle. As president of R.D. Merrill Company (parent company of Merrill Gardens), he has seen some of the finest courtyards that are found in senior living communities. Superficially, there isn’t anything noticeably different that distinguishes this courtyard from others:  it has seating areas, a water feature, and planters. Not even the Ionic columns, which symbolize its relationship with the University of Washington, would make this courtyard more special than the others.

The Importance of Connectivity

It’s not the tangible design elements that make this courtyard the best, in Pettit’s mind. It’s the intangible element of connectivity: This courtyard is a gathering place not only for seniors who call Merrill Gardens at The University home, but also the residents of The Corydon, an adjacent apartment complex which houses students, young professionals, and even baby boomers. Petitt says that during the day, the populations mix in the courtyard, allowing relationships to grow between residents of all ages. It’s this connectivity which he sees as an overlooked yet vital component that contributes to a seniors’ well-being. This desire for social connection “will merrill-gardens-at-the-university-courtyard-twoeven be more pronounced and meaningful as my generation, the Baby Boomer generation, transition into senior housing alternatives,” Petitt explains, and that “seniors as they age are looking for connections and to maintain connections more than anything else.”

In his opinion, this connectivity wasn’t appreciated or understood when senior living communities were built decades ago. “When Merrill Gardens started building communities 24 years ago, and I think the industry as a whole, a lot of the 1990s’ designs focused on finding an affordable piece of land and rather than looking at trying to create a community that kept seniors connected, typically that affordable land would be off on its own,” he said. “Out of this experience we learned two things, the land might have been cheaper, but you were spending more in marketing trying to get people to the site, and in addition to keeping them connected, we were now transporting them longer distances. The other aspect is what they were turning into was one big island of old age.”

Building a senior living community that wasn’t an island of old age was the vision for Merrill Gardens at The University, which is located near the University Village shopping center and less than half a mile away from the University of Washington Seattle campus. “From the start we had envisioned a gathering place, someplace where [we could] combine seniors with other generations. In some respects we weren’t sure how it was going to work out,” Pettit admitted.

Since the opening of the community in 2009, this new approach has paid off with a waiting list at the community, and families surprised that the surroundings don’t feel like a senior living community when they tour. “All of what we build as a company, and we’re not alone, these are truly residences. All of our units have kitchens,” Pettit says. “Our residents know they have the flexibility if they choose to prepare their own meals but they also have access to our dining room.”

The Design of Connectivity

The incorporation of connectivity is visible in prominent and subtle ways of its design. Walking around the block, and you will find a Yoga studio, restaurants, and shops and the entrance to The Corydon. Once inside Merrill Gardens at The University, “it’s not by accident that all of our common areas are set up with a visual to the courtyard,” he adds.

Pairing a merrill-gardens-at-the-university-dining-roomresidential apartment building alongside the senior living community also resulted in the unforeseen benefit of helping seniors transition “at their own pace” into Merrill Gardens at The University. Seniors who live in the neighboring apartments can participate in the dining program and activities, and this approach has “worked very effectively,” Pettit says.

With Merrill Gardens at The University having proven that this new approach to connectivity works, Pettit says they are now using this approach at new communities in other Washington State cities including Burien, Kirkland and Auburn, but also future sites in California. We have been actively building for the last 10 years, he says, and we are looking for sites “where the seniors are connected to downtown, where they are connected to be able to walk and step outside the door of the community and be immersed in an intergenerational population, rather than feeling like they have to [be] transport[ed] to it. They are part of it.”

This new approach does have its disadvantages from a financing and construction standpoint; multiple parcels are required to build these larger communities and being located in an urban environment means higher construction costs due to less laydown area for materials. Unfortunately, it also means higher monthly fees to live at the community, but at least in Washington State, there are income-restricted apartments available thanks to tax credits Merrill Garden receives from the state.

With an increasing population of seniors who will eventually move into senior housing, an emphasis on connecting seniors to outside the community and other generations will likely only increase.

“My belief, after all these years in the industry, is the industry needs many solutions,” Pettit shares. “This is a solution which I think appeals more broadly certainly to my generation than to previous generations, and yet I think there are still other alternatives that will continue to evolve and offshoots. But I think the central theme of maintaining connections is very real and very telling about the evolution of senior housing.”

Filling Their Communities With Song – American House Senior Living Communities

In our series finale on the importance of staying mentally active as we age, we are highlighting American House Senior Living Communities. In their retirement communities, they have a resident-centered activity program developed around a wellness model that addresses the physical, intellectual, social, vocational, emotional and spiritual well-being of a resident. And one of these activities is choir program that fills its communities with song.

Many senior living communities have sing-alongs as a regularly scheduled activity, yet at American House Senior Living Communities, it’s a formal choir that help keeps residents happy, healthy and active. The American House Choir is a large choral ensemble designed around the concept that singing in one’s golden years promotes emotional, physical and mental vitality. Residents involved in the choir, enjoy improved emotional well-being and foster their creativity through socialization, song preparation and performing.

“The advantage of a wellness program like our choir is it helps to provide a higher quality of life for residents which keeps them engaged in the community, giving them a sense of purpose,” said Rob Gillette, chief operating officer for American House Senior Living Communities. “Studies on music and its relation to aging adults have demonstrated notable psychological benefits including better social interaction, encouraged self-expression and improved interest levels.”

The residents are so good that the choir draws scores of audience members for local concerts at both American House activities and public events. Very few of these residents have formal choir experience, or even musical experience, but audiences are always impressed with their level of skill and talent. The choir’s music director, Daniel Grieg, who is also a pianist for the Michigan Opera Theater Program, said he’s proud of the residents and how much they’ve grown. “Our residents thoroughly enjoy their participation in our choir program and are eager to share with others the joy they experience when they sing. They are able to express themselves through music, and also have a chance to reflect on their lives and even tell stories about songs they remember from their youth.”

The community-wide choir was the inspiration of Angie Kadowaki, corporate life enrichment director for American House. Kadowaki described the choir as having come together after repeated requests from residents for a formal singing activity at several American House communities. “I was so inspired by the resident’s enthusiasm I knew I had to make this happen. That’s when I reached out to Dan and now the choir is nearly 100-members strong.”

For public events, a portion or the entire choir may perform. The choir performs throughout the metro-Detroit area, and one of their performances included opening for the United States Navy Band. Their repertoire is familiar standards from the 30s, 40s and 50s, like “Moon River” and “Over the Rainbow,” but their songbook also includes patriotic songs.

An offshoot of the main choir program is the Lady Liberty Chorus that features a 12-woman chorus. The chorus has an average age of 86, and these women usually perform at patriotic activities throughout southeast Michigan. Keeping with their namesake, the women dress as Lady Liberty and are very proud to be participating in the choir.

In addition to the choir, other musical activities are also incorporated into American House’s programming. American House has a partnership with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra where its musicians perform for residents at their communities among other events. One of the recent highlights was a special concert presented by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Thirty buses brought over 850 residents to attend the performance at Orchestra Hall in Detroit. During the performance, when John Phillip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” was to be played, DSO conductor, Leonard Slatkin invited American House resident and WWII veteran, Sam Blaga, on stage to conduct.

These types of special activities are just one part of American House’s efforts to keep their residents loving life. “One thing we pride ourselves on is having a rich activity program for our residents,” Kadowaki explained. At each community there are on average six to eight different activities throughout the day that residents can choose from. She says that their program is really resident centered and they make sure there is something for everyone.

For most families, when they tour a community, they are afraid their loved one won’t want to socialize, so a community’s activity program is a selling point,” Kadowaki said. While participating in the choir is one of the ways that seniors can stay mentally active, the participation also provides the socializing benefit. “It’s something for the residents to belong too, the bigger the choir the better for the resident. It’s a confidence booster and a way for the residents to get to know each other,” she adds.

With the nearly 100 residents scattered across three counties, Grieg arranges practices at each county level, coordinating with the community’s life enrichment directors to arrange for transportation to the different American House communities. Kadowaki said that by having the practices at different communities, residents can make new friends and look forward to visiting other communities.

And one of the reasons that residents may join the choir is because of peer pressure, albeit the good kind. “When residents see other residents participating, they think, ‘I can do that too,’” Kadowaki said.

Additional material and photographs provided by Alicia M. Woods, Sr. Marketing Communications Manager, American House Senior Living Communities

Bringing Farm Fresh Food to Their Residents’ Table: Maplewood Senior Living

Continuing on our theme of the importance of seniors and healthy eating, we are highlighting Maplewood Senior Living. While other senior living communities may advertise sourcing produce for use in their menus from local sources, Maplewood Senior Living pioneered this trend before it became mainstream and is exploring new ways to improve their residents’ lives through healthier and better tasting, local food.

Of the amenities that senior living communities advertise to attract potential residents—a swimming pool, spa or scenic grounds—Maplewood Senior Living is the only one that can boast of their very own working farm. With its Easton location within 45 minutes of all of their Connecticut communities, Maplewood Chairman and CEO Gregory Smith envisions the farm as being an integral part of community life, serving as both a source of food and a way to reconnect resident with their traditions.

Investing in a working farm is a natural outgrowth of Smith’s personal passion for food, and he readily acknowledges being a foodie. When he founded Maplewood Senior Living in 2006, Smith says that embracing a farm-to-table approach was just natural, an outgrowth of “my desire to have residents benefit from farm fresh produce.”

As part of Maplewood Senior Living’s A Taste at the Table and Inspired Dining programs, the produce and meats served in the dining rooms are sourced from 20-25 farms or co-ops within a 100-mile radius that includes all of Connecticut and upstate New York. To further emphasize the farm-to-table mindset, the dining menus list where the food is sourced from.

“There are a handful of local farmers we’ve created great friendships over the years and they appreciate we’re driving business their way,” Smith explains, and Andrea Ellen, vice president of marketing and communications, adds that “We often invite the farms to come to community events, and there is pride in seeing how the produce is being used.”

Last year the Maplewood Senior Living portfolio expanded to include a 50-acre working farm that is six miles from the corporate office. The land was formerly owned by the Catholic Church and leased to an older farmer who no longer wished to work the land. “The town of Easton was euphoric” when we announced we would purchase the farm, Smith says.

The University of Connecticut Agricultural and Resource Economics department will collaborate with Maplewood Senior Living in program development and managing the farm. The department is excited to partner with us because of how the farm will improve the quality of life for seniors and the benefits of healthy aging, Smith says. Though the program details will be developed later this year, he says that internships will be offered at the farm and there will be an intergenerational component.

To accommodate the future activities that Smith anticipates the farm hosting, the next two years will be spent developing the infrastructure, including the construction of a new lodge that will house a commercial test kitchen and root cellar. All the features, from the kitchens to the gardening beds will be designed to accommodate seniors with limited mobility. There will also be a vineyard with on-site grape pressing that residents and their families can be involved with. Smith anticipates breaking ground next summer and a growing season in early 2017.

Smith sees the farm as a return to the victory gardens that seniors grew during World War II. “We’re trying to be forward thinking while being grounded in their traditions.” And as part of those traditions is the late summer ritual of canning and pickling that residents will be able to participate in. Not only will this activity connect residents to a time-honored tradition, but the canned and pickled foods, along with what is stored in the root cellar, which will also serve as a source of food that is out of season.

It’s not just the residents who benefit from locally sourced ingredients. Smith says. Maplewood Senior Living’s culinary teams have fully embraced the farm-to-table program. Once the farm is up and running, our chefs will be creative on the spur of the moment, inspired by the ingredients they find that morning, Smith says.

Through this farm we are looking at the continuum of sustainability through food, from cattle,  poultry, orchard, and fresh produce; we’ll touch every aspect of that, Smith says, adding that “We don’t look at [investing in this farm] as a way to save money but as a way to improve the quality of life for residents and families. It’s just another extension of who we are as a company.”

Photographs courtesy of Maplewood Senior Living.

Silverado and Sunrise: Senior Living Providers Which Treat Pets Like Family

With family pets being such a central feature in home life, you could assume that senior living communities would embrace a culture of being pet friendly; after all, many communities market themselves as being just like home and what is home without one’s pet. Yet all too often, communities have a no pet policy. At Silverado and Sunrise Senior Living communities, you won’t find a no pet policy; instead both senior living providers specifically include treating pets as family as one of their company’s core values.

“Most people are pleasantly surprised to learn that our communities are pet friendly,” says Maggie Schlagel, regional director of sales for Sunrise Senior Living. ‘We’ve found that allowing pets helps with the transition into a community and residents are so much more relaxed.”

Kathy Greene, vice president of operations for Silverado, says that she knows of families who stalled moving a family member into a community when they learn that pets aren’t welcome. Among the reasons why Silverado communities have house pets is because “life needs spontaneity and what better way to provide spontaneity than pets,” she says.

Both Silverado and Sunrise communities have house pets in addition to residents’ pets. Sunrise communities typically have a dog and cat, though some have birds, and their Staten Island community has a rabbit, Schlagel adds. Silverado communities also feature cats, dogs and birds (on average it is one dog to 10 residents), but there are also guinea pigs. One of the communities they acquired even came with miniature horses—which they kept, much to the delight of residents.

At each Silverado community there is a pet budget and dedicated pet coordinator who helps residents care for the house pets, which Greene says helps give residents a sense of purpose. “All of us human beings need the opportunity to nurture others, and just as residents are being nurtured, residents can nurture in turn,” she explains. At one community, residents made blankets for the local animal shelter and volunteered to train or walk the dogs.

When people outside our community learn that our residents have Alzheimer’s or dementia, they are surprised about the life our residents are still able to live, she adds. “It’s about the moment, not the memory.”

Sunrise residents are also active in supporting the animals in their local community. At one location, the memory care residents bake treats to take to the local animal shelter, and our communities often partner with local rescues and host a pet adoption day on site, Schlagel says. Many of their house pets are adopted from local animal shelters as well.

Not only do community pets boost the residents’ spirits, but they also promote physical health. Both Greene and Schlagel have seen residents resume walking or walking more because the dogs genuinely enjoy taking walks.

Of the house pets that have made a difference in residents’ lives, Greene says the story of Max, a golden retriever, comes readily to mind. He would know when someone is approaching death and would stay with that person until the end, she says. One time, Max remained with the resident, only leaving to go outside and go to the bathroom. The family was so moved that they asked if he could be at the funeral and he lay next to the casket during the service.

At Brighton Gardens of Stamford it was Bear, a Bernese Mountain dog (pictured left), who helped a woman adjust to her new home. The resident connected with Bear before the other residents and the unconditional love he provided just made the transition easier, Schlagel says.

Sunrise doesn’t require a pet fee, and pets are assessed on a case-by-case basis to ensure they will fit in with community pets. For residents with allergies, Schlagel says the team members will keep residents apart from the pets, but this health issue doesn’t often arise. “Most people are thrilled we have the house pet, as it’s an asset to our community,” she explains. Even team members, visiting physicians and family members will bring in their pets.

At Silverado communities, families are also welcome to bring in pets, and there is also an open-door policy when it comes to residents’ pets. We don’t want a dog locked in the room all day, nor do we want the resident to stay in their room, so resident pets are welcome to roam around the community too, Green says. All future pets are assessed to ensure they can be around people and noise, and in many cases, they will become a community pet when the resident passes away. Silverado does have a monthly pet fee which covers food, pet supplies and care when it’s needed.

Of Sunrise’s pet program, Schlagel says it will definitely continue in the future because the company strives to champion the lives of their residents and pets and to create a homelike environment. The same sentiment is held at Silverado, Greene says, because they want to have visitors to be taken aback by the life found at their communities.

Images are courtesy of Silverado and Sunrise Senior Living (photographer Jennifer Prat).

Heritage Assisted Living Twin Falls – Where Community Pets Are Family

In previous blog posts we highlighted the positive benefits that pets provide seniors, such as lowering blood pressure or helping them remain independent. Pets become so much a part of daily life that many pet owners couldn’t imagine living without them. Adult children likely dread the time when their parents need to transition into an assisted living community, as it will mean leaving a beloved pet behind. Yet that isn’t the case at all. Many senior living communities allow residents to bring pets when they move in. Heritage Assisted Living Twin Falls in Idaho even goes one step further by having community pets which are an integral part of daily life.

The reason why seniors might not realize assisted living communities welcome pets is because they have a general perception of what nursing homes used to be, where pets weren’t welcome, explains Alyssa Peterson, executive director of Heritage Assisted Living Twin Falls. She says that when potential residents do learn that her community welcomes pets, they are generally relieved.

Like many senior living communities, Heritage Assisted Living Twin Falls is home to residents’ cats and dogs. Visiting family and staff are also allowed to bring their pets if they are trained and current on shots. The community also partners with Pet Partners, a pet therapy program which brings dogs to visit residents. Residents “definitely enjoy when people get to bring pets in to interact with,” Peterson says.

Her community also has an aviary filled with parakeets, and it’s not uncommon to see residents visit and chat with the birds. But it’s the “pretty fat and sassy” rabbits who call the courtyards home that never fail to attract attention or spark smiles. The rabbits became part of the community when a previous administrator decided the memory care residents needed a rabbit and Cadbury joined the community, Peterson explains. When the assisted living residents declared they wanted a rabbit too, Ruby was adopted, followed shortly by Butters since the residents said that Ruby needed a friend.

Cadbury makes daily trips into the memory care neighborhood to eat his half a banana and visit residents. Residents have an emotional response, “a warm happy feeling,” seeing him, which is a big point of why we have Cadbury since we want to give residents this pleasure, Peterson says.

When residents want to bring their pets to a community, Peterson says they should be aware that an assessment will be done to ensure their pet is a good fit with the community. We have them interact with other people and dogs so we don’t have any dog fights occur, she explains. In the case of dogs, unfortunately some have to be left at home become “some dogs are just not meant to be in a small area.”

There will be the additional cost of pet rent added to the monthly rent, as extra housekeeping is needed to keep the room tidy and smelling better, but she says that most families understand the reason for the additional cost. For families worried about allergies, Peterson says that most of the pets stay in the residents’ room, and it’s typically cats which people are allergic to, not so much with dogs. And in the unfortunate situation when a resident can no longer care for their pet, “we will explore things we can do to help the resident and pet stay together.”

In the situations when residents would prefer not to interact with the visiting animals, staff and visitors are respectful of a resident’s wishes. Yet even the residents who don’t call themselves animal lovers are eventually won over by the beloved community pets. Peterson says there is a 102-year-old resident who wouldn’t have anything to do with the visiting dogs when she joined the community. In the last two years, she now makes it a point of visiting Peterson’s office when she brings her dog to work.

Our Hopes, Our Values: A Look Inside celebrated its five-year anniversary this year. What was once a two-person startup company that met in coffeehouses in Seattle and Kirkland now has 20-plus employees in office space spanning two floors in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood. With this milestone came the realization that it was time to revisit our company values to determine whether they still reflect how our company operates.

While other companies may have a top-down approach to setting values, at, it is an employee-driven approach. This approach is reflective of the attitude that is found in the startup world as opposed to well-established corporations or state agencies. The employees expect more from a company than just a paycheck; we expect a workplace where we truly want to spend every working day. Otherwise, what is the point of working here?Members of the Values Team

Every Monday morning for the past two months, our values team met for discussion. No management positions sat at the table, and each department had a representative. Working from a list of 100-plus value words that the entire company submitted, our task was to use the words as inspiration for our new value statements.

The brainstorming wasn’t difficult, grouping similar words together, but there were moments when our HR representative was forced to break the awkward silence because no one was sure of what to say next. And in keeping with the sense of laidback personalities around the table, no one felt the need to take charge or dominate the conversation. What the discussions revealed was agreement on the concepts but disagreement on the word choice.

Though the values are still pending final review by the team and management, what this process showed was the values adopted five years ago are still current. We are still dedicated to quality or embracing change, but we could benefit from refinement and additions. We still encourage balance between our work and personal life, but also, being a dog-friendly company is a value that everyone agreed should be called out!

When it came time to our core purpose statement, which is still in draft stage, an hour-and-a-half meeting came down to a 10-word statement of purpose. What these discussions showed was how to best summarize the dual-natured work we do: connecting seniors with a senior retirement community while improving the marketing of senior living providers.

Stay tuned as we unveil our new company values in a couple weeks.

Senior Housing Assistance Group’s Community Life Foundation Helps Seniors to Age in Place

SHAG's Community Life FoundationIn an earlier article, I highlighted Senior Housing Assistance Group (SHAG) and their efforts to create more affordable housing communities for seniors in the Puget Sound region. However, this is does not fully address the additional services their aging residents may need to remain independent. This need served as the impetus for the creation of the Community Life Foundation.

“What keeps you up at night?” Through a series of one-on-one interviews and resident group meetings, Executive Director Jay Woolford learned just that. “I saw that as our resident population was aging, life changes were requiring more support to maintain independence,” and the looming challenge was to find a way to support them, he says. This realization caused a paradigm shift at SHAG, with the board recognizing the strategic need to evolve beyond providing affordable housing to also creating the connections to enable their residents to remain independent as they age in place.

Creating these connections is the mission of the Community Life Foundation (CLF), a nonprofit SHAG-affiliated board that started in 2012. The reason for its being a separate entity from SHAG was we saw the need to really grow it and create a specific focus, Woolford explains, and the two overarching necessities the CLF fulfills are connecting residents with community resources and increasing SHAG’s support of its residents.

Resident Services Manager for SHAG-Annie Jacobsen

Annie Jacobsen, SHAG’s Resident Services Manager (Photo courtesy of SHAG)

How this looks at the community level is taking shape through a pilot program at The Terrace. At this downtown Seattle residence, SHAG partnered with Legacy House—a nearby community that provides assisted living services and housing to low-income seniors in the International District—to develop an educational wellness program and bring in nursing support for their residents. CLF funding created the new position of a resident service coordinator to serve as an advocate and liaison between residents and community resources. While the local Area Agencies on Aging can provide guidance on the availability of community resources, Woolford says accessing those resources requires individuals to pick up the phone and ask for help—an action many residents are reluctant to take for a variety of reasons.

During the resident interviews, Woolford observed that many residents were veterans, and he saw a real need to better support them. Using CLF funding they started a veterans outreach program that spans all SHAG communities. This program is staffed with a resident services coordinator whose sole responsibility is to assist veterans.

With CLF’s pilot programs in their second year, Woolford recognizes that they are “still in the trust-building stage.” They rely upon building managers to alert coordinators when residents are at risk of losing their apartment, whether due to hoarding practices or the inability to live safely. When a need for further support is observed, the coordinators work with the residents and match them to resources.

A holistic approach is taken when developing CLF programs because “we recognize that being active and engaged is a critical part of healthy aging,” Woolford says. At the Green River Court Apartments and Arrowhead Gardens, Enhance®Fitness programming is provided through a partnership with ProjectEnhance, a nonprofit that develops health-promotion programs for seniors. While the program requires an ongoing effort to encourage participation in the weekly exercise classes, Woolford reports seeing sustained and steady levels of attendance. A partnership with Lifelong and their Chicken Soul Brigade and Pots and Plans programs brings nutrition and cooking classes to The Terrace’s residents, while a pilot partnership with Volunteers of America creates a community-wide dining experience, expanding upon the current community potlucks that SHAG sponsors.

Another aspect of expanding CLF is developing partnerships with other nonprofit organization to facilitate connecting residents to the services needed to age in place. We are “connecting with community partners who are now elated to work with us” and actively finding organizations that are important to our residents, such as the local churches and veterans groups, says Rebecca Winn, SHAG’s communication coordinator. One of these organizations is Hopelink whose transportation services are a necessity for seniors who are unable to drive and cannot access public transit. Transportation is critical, and we are working with Hopelink to study what can be done to assist seniors, Winn says. Through CLF, SHAG acquired retired Metro commuter vans to provide transportation assistance at five communities.

Womens Making Art program at SHAG’s Courtland Place

Residents participating in the Womens Making Art program at SHAG’s Courtland Place (Photo courtesy of SHAG)

Yet building partnerships extends beyond matching residents to community services, and also involves connecting SHAG residents with the neighborhood. Through SouthEast Effective Development (SEED), women at the Rainier Terrace collaborated on an art project with other women in the surrounding neighborhood. With diverse backgrounds participating in the project, translators were brought in to help facilitate, and Winn says that with the help of a translator, one of their SHAG residents—who only spoke Mandarin—could finally talk with her neighbors.

With the success of this project, Woolford wants to develop other programs so SHAG residents can become involved in activities, such as partnering with local elementary schools to create mentoring programs, but he recognizes that the challenge is not only taking the leap to test partnerships, but to overcome residents’ skepticism.

Even with resident support, Woolford views scalability and management of the partnerships as the largest obstacle. The resident services coordinator and resident life coordinator positions are essential components and their funding is provided by the CLF. Currently, CLF is funded through the annual Spokes for Folks fundraiser, but Woolford would like to diversify their funding sources—including grants—because the necessities that CLF fulfills will only increase as the number of seniors requiring assistance rises. This is “a national conversation that everyone is having,” he says, and it represents a fundamental shift of asking what senior housing is and what it means.

Andrea Watts is content writer for, and in addition to covering senior living, she also writes on sustainable forestry and agriculture issues. Her writings have appeared in publications that include TimberWest, The Forestry Source and Acres U.S.A.

Senior Housing Assistance Group: Redefining What Affordable Senior Living Means

SHAG Columbia Gardens at Rainier Court

Columbia Gardens at Rainier Court is a new community in Rainier Valley.

The Senior Housing Assistance Group (SHAG) is more than just about being a roof over the head, according to Executive Director Jay Woolford. As the sixth largest nonprofit provider of affordable senior housing in the United States, SHAG serves a large, underserved population of seniors and is pioneering efforts to create a model of community-based partnerships that allow their residents to age in place at home.

Visually, SHAG communities challenge the stereotype of what most people think of when it comes to affordable senior housing. Their communities resemble those of market-rate communities, offering amenities such as fitness rooms, community gardens and electric car powering stations. As with market-rate communities, SHAG communities are located in urban and town centers, with shopping, restaurants and health care resources accessible within walking distance or a short bus ride.

The diversity of the over 5,000 residents who call a SHAG apartment home might also challenge misconceptions. Though communities are open to seniors 62 and older, most residents are in their 70s, with some being over 100! Like most retirement communities, single women make up a substantial portion of their residents, and seniors who are 55 and disabled comprise 15 percent of the resident population. More than half of SHAG residents have lived at a community for more than five years.

What makes SHAG communities unique is that they are built using a combination of private and public funding sources. While this helps reduce financing and development costs, it also means communities must be self-sustaining and operate primarily on collected rent. As a result, SHAG must plan strategically, balancing the need to build more affordable housing to meet demand while not exceeding their budget.

Since its first community opening in 1989, SHAG has grown to include 28 retirement communities and counting, spanning from Bellingham to Olympia. Woolford says it is not unusual for seniors to ask when a new SHAG community will open in their area. Tukwila is the next location for a SHAG community, with Tukwila Village opening in fall 2014. More communities are planned for Lynnwood, University Place, Bothell, Federal Way and Mountlake Terrace

SHAG residents watching a gameWith many senior living providers focused on building high-end retirement communities, this leaves a large segment of the population unserved. Furthermore, even those who had the luxury to prepare for retirement, one big event, such as a medical emergency, can result in near poverty. This need for affordable housing and services is the hole we are trying to fill, Woolford says.

Many people who could benefit from SHAG housing do not apply because of the belief that they will not qualify: people either think their income is too high or too low to qualify. This is one of the misconceptions that everyone—including legislators— have and they also do not recognize the increasing need for affordable senior housing, and SHAG works to change these perceptions, explains Rebecca Winn, SHAG’s communications coordinator. The reality is that many seniors do meet the requirements; for example, the income limit for a one person household for a SHAG community in King County is $37, 080.

Life at a SHAG community is resident driven. With residents determining the activities being offered, this makes each community unique, Woolford explains. Activities can vary from community to community. For example, the New Haven community in north Seattle offers a movie night and line dancing, Titus Court in Kent has cards and games, and Courtland Place in south Seattle offers women’s arts and culture workshops. A recent initiative at Courtland Place is developing intergenerational programs with local school groups, connecting SHAG residents to the larger community where they live, or as Woolford describes it, “find[ing] ways to break down that barrier in a good way.”

For the past five years, SHAG’s Courtland Place at Rainier Court has participated in the Rainier Valley community festival. They recently received a grant from the city of Seattle through its SouthEast Effective Development (SEED) program to sponsor a musical/art program that allows residents to share their talents with school children. Woolford sees SHAG communities playing a vital role in creating vibrant neighborhoods, with everyone, including their residents, engaged in the pursuit of this goal.

Spokes for Folks bike ride fundraiser for the SHAG Community Life Foundation Saturday Sept. 28, 2013 in Seattle.

The first-annual Spokes for Folks bike ride fundraiser for the SHAG Community Life Foundation

In 2012 SHAG formed the Community Life Foundation whose mission is to “connect seniors living in affordable housing to resources that support their independence.” Through the 2013 Spokes for Folks fundraiser—their first major fundraiser which Woolford described as having a real great energy and bringing the community together—the Community Life Foundation funded a pilot program that combined a health and wellness program with resident services coordination at The Terrace in downtown Seattle.

By partnering with existing community resources to seamlessly connect seniors with services, Woolford and his staff are working to deliver a continuum of care to their residents. This is the least expensive way to serve people,” Woolford explains, and Winn adds that SHAG wants to be on the “forefront of finding solutions for this pocket of [seniors] who are aging.” Some of the challenges faced by the foundation include obtaining funding for services, identifying providers for both health care and housekeeping, and getting residents recognize when they need assistance. Winn states that many middle class residents perceive services such as housekeeping assistance as a luxury, and not something they would consider spending money on.

Through this new pilot program, resident services coordinators are the eyes and ears at the community level. They can help identify residents whose behavior may put them at risk for eviction, whether due to mental health issues or an inability to maintain safe and sanitary living conditions resulting from failing health. Woolford describes the program as absolutely essential, but faces challenges such as maintaining adequate funding and scalability to other communities. Expanding outreach to their veteran residents is also a priority, and Woolford sees a need for SHAG to be more proactive in providing support and connecting them to resources to which they are entitled.

SHAG also offers an internship that allows college students to shadow resident services coordinators and assist with the community engagement program. Not only does this program promote the benefits of working with seniors, which is a growing need, but the residents enjoy seeing new faces. We have received lots of positive feedback about the program, Winn says.

While SHAG is pioneering these new initiatives, they aren’t losing sight of their core mission of providing affordable senior housing. In their most recent annual survey, nearly 100 percent of their 5,000 residents reported that they are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the physical upkeep, the management of their community, and their quality of life. With the persistent demand for more SHAG communities throughout western Washington, Woolford pledges that “we will continue to develop with partners to find ways to operate affordable housing.”

To learn more about SHAG housing, visit

Andrea Watts is a Seattle-based freelance writer who covers senior living, sustainable forestry and agriculture issues. Her writings have appeared in publications that include TimberWestThe Forestry Source and Acres U.S.A.

Atria Senior Living’s Going Green Practices

In an earlier article, I highlighted the trend of retirement communities adopting green practices. Atria Senior Living is one senior living provider who has not only embraced green-building methods but are putting these practices front and center for residents and their families to see.

Atria on the Hudson - Exterior

Atria on the Hudson is the only LEED certified retirement community in Westchester County.

A data screen that displays up-to-minute electricity savings and native drought-tolerate landscaping that prompts requests for the landscaper’s number: these are just a few of the community highlights that family and friends are surprised to see when visiting the Atria on the Hudson and Atria Valley View communities. These additions aren’t just novelties but are a number of features that will eventually become commonplace at other Atria communities across the United States.

“Let’s be honest, it’s not easy being green, but it’s worth it,” says Stephen Nichols, executive director of Atria on the Hudson in Ossining, New York. As the only green community in Westchester County, this LEED Silver certified community is a draw for seniors seeking environmentally friendly living. The community was designed from the ground up with sustainability in mind, and Nichols says this is apparent to visitors and residents since the closest parking spots are reserved for green vehicles and automatic lighting is used.

Atria on the Hudson - CourtyardAtria on the Hudson is one of three Atria communities that now have solar panels, and while the popular reason for solar panels is reducing electricity consumption, there is another benefit that surprised Nichols. During Superstorm Sandy, we only lost power for a short time, and I never once thought of solar panels providing a safety benefit, he says.

For residents who require electricity to power medical equipment, solar panels could be a deciding factor in choosing a community. He has also observed that a popular hotspot of the community is the data screen that displays up-to-the-minute savings in the amount of oil savings by having green building practices. Residents frequently stop and discuss what the community is doing, making a point of showing the data screen to visitors, Nichols says.

The sustainably-built Atria on the Hudson is part of the initiative launched in 2009 to incorporate green sustainable practices into our communities as part of our “Go Green with Atria” campaign, Mark Alexander, senior vice president of redevelopment, wrote in email. The inaugural change of installing more than 140,000 compact fluorescent lamp light bulbs in all of their 150 communities and at the corporate Support Center resulted in a reduction of 37 million kilowatt hours of electricity.

“Because we take our obligation to the world around us seriously, we are committed to providing residents with the best possible senior living experience and increasing our environmentally friendly practices plays a key role in that commitment,” Alexander shared via email. “To date, we have invested over $145 million, including a $1.1 million of additional investment in lighting initiatives, in developing our communities, and improving their sustainability, with more improvements planned for the future.”

Atria Valley View - Courtyard

Renovations at Atria Valley View earned it LEED Silver certification.

The renovations of the Atria Valley View in Walnut Creek, California not only earned it LEED Silver certification, but it also created a stronger connection of residents to their natural surroundings. Replacing the older windows with double-paned windows created a significant drop in energy consumption for heating and air conditioning but they also allow residents to engage with the outdoors, says Leo Morales, senior executive director of Atria Valley View, adding that the practices at his community places us “years ahead of competitors” in the surrounding area. These practices include using an irrigation system that waters plants at their roots, which conserves water usage in drought conditions that are increasingly becoming headline news.

Water savings is also found not only in using water-efficient bathroom appliances and smart water heaters, but also in use of native plants in landscaping. And the benefits of native landscaping extend beyond a conservation of resources. I estimate that we have seen an increase of 50 percent or higher of visiting birds and bees, Morales says; this translates to a “tremendous impact in [our resident’s] desire to get outside and walk.”

Recycling efforts are also part of life at both communities. About a year and a half ago, we saw that our residents receive a lot of mail and the paper wasn’t being recycled so we expanded recycling efforts, Nichols says. Both Morales and Nichols say the key to encouraging participation in a recycling program is the placement of the bins, whether in the mailroom at Atria on the Hudson or in a central location at Atria Valley View. Residents welcome these new energy and resource saving measures and “[they] love the concept,” Morales says. Newcomers at his community are welcomed by ambassadors who emphasize that recycling is part of life. The maintenance staff also offer compact florescent light bulbs to replace the incandescent light bulbs in the furnishings that new residents bring.

At the residents’ request, Atria on the Hudson has participated in the Westchester Green Business Challenge since 2012, and this year will see a partnership with the Briarcliff Manor Horticulture Society to bring an organic garden to the community.

Atria Valley View - OverlookThe day-to-day renovation and maintenance work that also incorporates sustainable practices include using recycled carpet and using VOC-free paints and adhesives at communities, Alexander shared via email, and with our newest community on Cape Cod earning LEED Gold certification, “I think we’ll continue to see a shift toward environmentally-conscious communities.” One such community, Atria Tamalpais Creek in Novato, has 35 percent of their two-year electricity usage being generated from green sources and recycling efforts that have diverted 576 tons of waste from the landfill.

Even staff rise to the challenge of considering new green initiatives, with Nichols saying that their Director of Culinary Services is considering the feasibility of a food waste generator to power the community’s kitchen. With residents welcoming these changes and, in fact, encouraging their implementation at Atria communities, it just demonstrates, as Morales says, that “everyone is feeling a little green these days.”

Andrea Watts is a Seattle-based freelance writer who covers senior living, sustainable forestry and agriculture issues. Her writings have appeared in publications that include TimberWestThe Forestry Source and Acres U.S.A.

Promoting Wildlife-Friendly Habitat at Retirement Communities

Wildlife-friendly habitat at retirement communities benefits both seniors and wildlife alike—from providing relaxing scenery to offering a much needed green oasis for birds in an urban environment. For seniors considering creating wildlife-friendly habitat at their community, there are several of organizations that provide expertise  and certification.

In Rethinking the Value of Your Community’s Landscapes, posted on Assisted Living Federation of America’s Member to Member Solution page, I highlight the benefits of wildlife-friendly habitat and senior living provider, Erickson Senior Living, whose residents and staff embrace the idea of creating wildlife-friendly habitat at their communities.

These are photos of Oak Crest in Parkville, Maryland showing wildlife-friendly habitat in action.

Oak Crest Village Parkville, Maryland

Wildlife-certified habitat that residents enjoy every day while strolling through the campus.

Cherry Trees on Oak Crest Village's Campus

Wildlife-friendly habitat adds to the beauty found on the Oak Crest campus.

Residents and Staff Participating in Spring Clean up

Residents and staff participating in the annual spring clean up of the garden area.

Green Roofs on an Oak Crest Village building

Other sustainable practices include green roofs on several campus buildings.