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Envisioning the Future of Senior Living Communities: The Benefits of Community and Connection for Seniors

An Interview with Dr. Robert Schreiber
The Benefits of Community and Connection for Seniors

Earlier this year Hebrew SeniorLife Communities sponsored the “Senior Living Communities of the Future Forum” at NewBridge on the Charles as an opportunity for our residents’ adult children to hear from experts in their fields on the future of senior living communities.

We sought insights to some of their most significant concerns as they relate to aging as well as important questions about their vision of the life they want to lead in later years. Concerns such as:

  • What type of senior living community would be right for me as I age?
  • Will I choose to age at home with services? How do I stay physically fit and healthy?
  • Do I want to live with others who share my background, or do I want a more diverse and inclusive community?
  • What role will technology play as I age?
  • What would I change to meet my generation’s needs and wants?

Our “Senior Living Communities of the Future Forum” panel included Martin Siefering, AIA, Principal Architect Perkins Eastman Architecture; Dr. Lisa D'Ambrosio, Social Research Scientist, MIT AgeLab; and Dr. Robert Schreiber, Medical Director Evidenced based Programs at Hebrew SeniorLife, instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and internist.

This is the second Q&A blog in a series with these three professionals revealing insights from their own professional experience about what the future of senior living communities is likely to hold.  

Dr. Rob Schreiber is Medical Director of Evidence-Based Programming at Hebrew SeniorLife and a board-certified geriatrician.

Q: How important will senior communities be to improving the health and wellness of older adults in the future?

Dr. Rob Schreiber: I think that a sense of community and what community means to an individual becomes very important as we age and will remain so in the future. Being part of a community provides a close network that helps you solve problems, gives you the level of support you need, as well as helping to make connections and build a personal network beyond family.  And while family connections are very critical, a network of friends beyond family is equally important.

To stay independent, you need to be interdependent. You need to have support systems to help compensate for losses, or things that you can no longer do. Doing so allows you to maintain those things that are most important to you and to continue to contribute. 

Q: What do you think is responsible for increased longevity among those living in a senior community?

Dr. Rob Schreiber: The sense of purpose is what really strikes me about why people live long lives in communities. I think it comes about through the sense they are connected with others and they feel they have something important to contribute. Being part of a community also provides a sense of purpose that prompts questions like, “What are my goals in life? What is really important to me? Am I doing the things that really matter most to me?”

I believe we have to look at it from a holistic, person-centered view that includes their values and how they define a delighted life, one that brings meaning and joy to them, as well as their families.

Q. Can community imply connection for people – not necessarily just place?

Dr. Rob Schreiber: I think is a really key concept of the way we define community. Community doesn’t necessarily imply place – it can also imply a personal network of connections. The use of technology to facilitate the creation of virtual community without moving to a community could be good option for some, but in other cases people may prefer to move-in to achieve their sense of community. 

I consult with many patients who do not want to leave their home but they’re also depressed and isolated. There’s also a high likelihood of cognitive impairment. They’re no longer doing the things that were important to them. I would not define that as healthy aging in place or living their best possible life.

Q: What about bringing the services of the CCRC into people’s home in the future?

Dr. Rob Schreiber: This type of program would provide a package of services – meals, transportation, and forms of personal assistance - to someone at home, and instead of it being in a building, you develop your community through this network of connections. It is a different model and approach but is still about community. It’s about defining what community is, and allowing people to stay in their homes longer if they want to. New technologies will help to accomplish this and potentially connect people in different ways.

Any community-based model has to work for the family, the caregivers and the extended unit of support systems. It also has to be sustainable over time and affordable, which will be the big challenge as our population ages and the burden of chronic illness increases. The model has to keep people as healthy as possible in a prevention wellness mode while supporting their life goals.  

Q: How will the increasing number of dementia patients and the stigma of dementia affect communities in the future?

Dr. Rob Schreiber: It will have a very significant impact. There’s not only a stigma for age, there is also a stigma for dementia that we have to overcome together. Many continuing care retirement communities provide for memory care and the benefit is that there is less disruption in a person’s life when the need arises. However, there is a movement afoot to develop more dementia-friendly towns and cities for the general population.

I think one general approach to de-stigmatize dementia for everyone is to start early screening for cognitive impairment, just like we have our blood pressure or respiratory rate checked, to help with early diagnosis and other modifications. I think technology is going to drive this, but there will be other are other societal and cultural factors at play as well. Treatment can be provided earlier on so that people have the support they need in whatever form community is to them.

Stay tuned next month for part III: An Interview with Dr. Lisa D'Ambrosio, Social Research Scientist, MIT AgeLab.

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