Recently, a colleague and I were discussing the impact of personal ageism on older adult health beliefs, and behaviors. We also talked about the way ageism impacts how older adults are viewed by others.

I’ve often heard women over 60 describe feeling discounted and sometimes invisible, which makes me really proud to be a part of the Sixty and Me community of women who are anything but invisible! Thanks, Margaret!

Discussing ageism that day led me to re-read a 2009 article I wrote for the Journal on Active Aging titled “Creating Purpose-Driven Senior Living.”

It was a call to action for the senior living industry to envision and intentionally develop senior living communities not as places to ‘take care’ of older adults but instead as centers for elderhood.

They should be places where residents are provided with the resources, tools, encouragement and support to be Elders in the broader community.

I made the point that traditional services and care wouldn’t disappear but would just be one part of the environment – no more or less important than any other resources or support.

The Value of Creating Purpose-Centered Communities

Making this shift would require eliminating the filter of what people think older adults are capable of – owning to both ageism and ‘able-ism.’

Ageism is characterized by making assumptions about who a person is and what they’re capable of based on their age. Similarly, able-ism is making assumptions about a person based on their functional or cognitive challenges.

In purpose-centered communities, Elders would have the ability to identify issues they’re passionate about.

Then, the senior living industry and regulatory organizations that drive policies would work together to mobilize the potential of older adults gathered together in purpose to impact change in all kinds of community issues.

How Senior Living Communities Could Give Back to Broader Society

Senior living communities could tackle childhood obesity by growing organic vegetables for school lunch programs or providing healthy cooking/eating classes. They could also create walking trails and become walking buddies for children struggling with weight.

Elders in senior living communities could work for positive change in all kinds of issues: environmental, animal welfare, child welfare, etc. They could be of great help for ‘soft’ issues and tough challenges alike.

For example, a senior living community could choose to commit to foster care and designate several apartments as sanctuaries for young children yanked out of their homes in the middle of the night due to a family crisis.

Rather than the fear and helplessness of bouncing through numerous foster homes for weeks at a time, these children would have a volunteer team of Elders seeing to their needs until they’re reunited with family or placed in permanent foster care.

What a dramatic difference this approach would make for children in need of support and for Elders of virtually all abilities. A person doesn’t need a high level of function to hold the hand of a frightened child and be a calming and loving presence in times of crisis.

I believe older adults, regardless of age or function, should live in environments that have clear options (not requirements) and direct support and encouragement to be Elders in the broader community – in both small and large ways.

Currently, the senior living industry works hard to provide meaningful activities for residents, but that’s quite different than consciously creating environments that actively support Elderhood in the broader community – regardless of challenges. Here’s a link to the full article.

What do you see when you look at senior living communities? Do you think frail older adults can contribute to the broader community? Do you think senior living communities could lead the way to positive change with purpose-centered action in the broader community? Please share your opinions below.

Kay Van NormanKay Van Norman is an internationally known healthy aging expert who directed the Keiser Institute on Aging, has extensive publications – including a Chinese translation of her book “Exercise and Wellness for Older Adults” – and created the Vitality Portfolio®, an action plan to build lifelong vitality – regardless of challenges.

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