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Retiring in Style

Jimmy Magahern | Mar 25, 2013, midnight

That’s a term Olea has come to know during her over 10 years of servicing the senior living industry. “You hear residents in independent living talking around the community centers: ‘Oh my gosh, she went to the other side! She had to go to assisted living.’ Almost like it’s a bad word! And in some communities, it’s definitely a split. Once they’re in the assisted living system, they cannot go back to the independent side to join in on activities. They’ll see all their friends eating in the independent living dining room, and they truly cannot go join them. They need to stay in assisted living for their meals.”

That little-known segregation in the senior living world is the subject of a documentary short currently up for an Oscar titled “Kings Point,” named for a retirement community in Florida director Sari Gilman came to know upon multiple visits with her grandmother, who lived there for more than 30 years. At the film’s New York premier last summer, Gilman talked about the “almost Darwinian aspect of social life” that emerges around each resident’s relative condition.

“If you had your health, you were popular,” she said. “If not, people stopped coming by. At the pool, I heard the whispers: ‘Oh, Ida. Yeah, she’s going down.’”

“These communities have done a good job of sheltering their residents in the independent living units from the serious health care that goes on in the assisted side,” says Olea. “But we’re starting to see the negative consequences of creating that ‘great divide.’”

As combined living facilities age themselves, observers say the key to keeping them attractive may lie less in dressing the buildings up in distracting elegance and staffing the communities with people who can best address the whole mix of unique physical, mental and social needs that develop in all these age-segregated communities.

“Our mission every day is to make our residents feel safe, important, comfortable, respected and happy,” says Jay Beaird, marketing director of McDowell Village in Scottsdale, where the average age of the residents is around 82. “And that takes hiring people who have a passion for seniors. We have a multitude of exercise programs and activities that challenge their minds, bodies and souls. But ultimately, it’s about treating them with dignity and respect.

“Many of these residents have moved here for what is probably the last phase of their lives,” adds Beaird, vocalizing an uncomfortable fact about CCRCs never mentioned in the brochures. “Our job is to make that whole phase as wonderful as possible.”

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