Operators, Developers Must Consider Solo Agers

by Jeff Shaw

By Dr. Sara Zeff Geber

As the baby boomers dip a cautious toe into the waters of senior living, they are looking for a very different experience than their parents. 

Developers already know this and have made some changes in building designs and space allocation to meet these changing needs. Operators are making changes in furnishings, amenities, dining options and recreation menus. Those are all good and necessary updates, and will connect with boomers’ desires for independence, autonomy and control in addition to attractive surroundings. 

Solo agers: A growing class of residents

However, there is something less obvious about these new prospective residents: many of them are solo agers. 

The definition of a solo ager is an older adult who has no competent adult children or any other family members they can count on for support as they age. This definition encompasses not only people who don’t have children, but also includes those whose children are estranged from them or who live thousands of miles away. 

Based on a 2018 U.S. Census Bureau study, over 17 percent of adults over 60 do not have children. That is very close to double what it has been for previous generations. When you add in the additional categories of solo agers described above, the percentage of older adults who might count themselves as solo agers is over 30 percent.

The U.S. Census Bureau report also revealed a lot about child-free older adults when they are compared to their “parent” counterparts: They are more educated (38 percent have a bachelor’s degree versus 30 percent of parents), fewer of them were married at the time of the report (40 percent versus 62 percent of parents) and far more of them had never married (32 percent versus less than 3 percent of parents). Net worth is higher among women solo agers than their male counterparts and counterparts who are parents. Solo agers also live alone in much larger numbers than their counterparts who are parents. 

These statistics illustrate why senior living can be the right answer for solo agers and why senior living executives and developers should count them as one of their major constituencies.

Pursuing community

Solo agers can be just as resistant to the idea of giving up their single-family home as someone with children. This resistance can be tied to many factors, including the requirement to divest themselves of all the treasures they have accumulated. But it likely has more to do with giving up the community connections they have built over the span of their adult years. 

Solo agers tend to have stronger ties to their friendship circles, local civic activities, clubs, volunteer groups and places of worship than their contemporaries who spend much of their time with adult children and grandkids.

Form and function

For solo agers, the function of senior living communities should be to connect, to be a magnet for interaction and communication. In a community of 400 souls, people need to find a smaller number of others with whom they will form bonds of friendship. 

If solo agers are to move into senior living communities, and I believe that many will do so, they will be looking for a place where form and structure suggest opportunities for connection with their neighbors. Residents fulfill part of this need through the activities they join, but they could also find it in their immediate surroundings. 

One senior living community I visited in Pacific Grove, California last year demonstrated the power of the structure of the building to facilitate connections. The resident who was giving me a tour showed me how the living units were situated into separate buildings that each housed eight apartments. She went on to say that the people she knew best in the community were those in her building, that they had formed a kind of sub-community and often got together for barbecues or cocktail hours on their communal patio.

This kind of cluster community can best be achieved when there are small groupings of units that facilitate the following factors:

• Integration — Units open into a courtyard or indoor common area to invite frequent interaction with people in nearby units. This is especially true when the residents of those units must pass through the common area to reach other parts of the greater facility. 

• Transitional spaces — These can be achieved through individual patios or balconies overlooking the community space. This affords a gradual transition between private and communal space. This can be especially true when the transitional space affords a view of the common courtyard or other common outdoor area. This gives a resident the opportunity to be in a visible, approachable area, but still in their own private space.

• Mini-cores — A central core is common in most senior living communities today. However, having smaller mini-cores can also be important to the interaction among residents with a similar “address.” For instance, in a hub-and-spoke design, residents of one of the spokes might also have a lounge area or game room that serves as a mini-core at some point in the spoke. These mini-cores can have formal names like “The B Wing” from which the residents might create an identity for themselves like “The B-Wing Scrappers.”

Mini -ores can also be created with cottages or patio homes, which are common options today in many CCRCs and independent living developments. The more these single-unit, duplex or tri-plex dwellings can be clustered around a common green area or courtyard, the more conducive they will be to interaction and the development of friendship bonds. 

Friendship bonds

Married people can be classified as solo agers, since it is anyone’s guess which one will predecease the other. When married solo agers move in as a couple, they will often be looking for a community that will offer strong support for the remaining partner. 

Senior living developers and operating companies would do well to pay attention to the growing strength of friendship bonds. There are countless stories of people, often groups of solo aging women, sometimes groups of couples, who are looking for options to keep their friendship bonds active in later life when they themselves may be faced with physical challenges that lead them to seek out a safer and more secure environment. 

Why not create units that can be shared by two independent adults? In the 1980s, condo and apartment developers seized on a popular configuration called the two-master-suite unit. Thousands of these were built and happily occupied by singles who wanted to share the space. This design is again becoming popular and could be an excellent way to accommodate two independent adults.

As solo agers age and determine they have the best chance of feeling connected, valued and supported in senior living, they will be looking for the place that feels right to them. Form and structure will play a huge role, both consciously and subconsciously. 

Dr. Sara Zeff Geber, 2018 recipient of the “Influencers in Aging” designation by PBS’ Next Avenue, is an author, consultant, and keynote speaker on retirement and aging. She has developed a niche specialty studying the needs and wishes of solo agers — older adults who have no children or other family support. She is the author of Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers: A Retirement and Aging Roadmap for Single and Childless Adults, which was selected that year as a “best book on aging well” by the Wall Street Journal.

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