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Is Senior Living the New Best Medicine?


Last year, we heard the bad news—loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking (Cigna); loneliness could increase risk of dementia by 40 percent (Florida State University). Now it’s time for the good news: Senior living communities appear to be good for your health.

The first-year results of the Mather LifeWays Age Well Study shows “Life Plan Community residents report more healthy behaviors and have greater emotional, social, physical, intellectual, and vocational wellness than those living in the community at large.”

The Age Well Study is “the most extensive longitudinal research to date” comparing Life Plan Community residents to those living in the community at large. The Year One’s big takeaway: “Nearly 70 percent of older adults surveyed reported that moving to a Life Plan Community has somewhat or greatly improved their social wellness.”

“To finally have research that measures self-reported health and wellness, and see these positive metrics—relative to social wellness in particular—says something very important about the value and benefit that living in a Life Plan Community provides for older adults,” said Mary Leary, CEO and president at Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging, a resource for research and information, in an email interview.

“The results also show overall that these kinds of communities foster a sense of community and social engagement which is gratifying not only for our industry, but for anyone considering a Life Plan Community for their future.”

Social support and health

The study uses the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC) definition of a Life Plan Community, which like a CCRC may offer a full continuum of care and supportive services on one campus.

While the Age Well Study is unique in focus and extent, another study reported similar results: A University of California San Diego study in the May American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry looked at independent living residents at a CCRC and found social support was associated with physical health, and cognitive function with satisfaction with life.

“Continuing care senior housing communities are important sites for promoting healthy lifestyles,” it stated.

A different recent study shows the flip side: Living alone was highly associated with feeling lonely; 60 percent of those who lived alone reported feeling a lack of companionship, and 41 percent felt isolated, according to the National Poll on Healthy Aging, conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

Is senior living the new health supplement?

Examining positive strengths

The Age Well Study surveyed residents on six areas thought to describe wellness for an individual: emotional, intellectual, vocational, physical, social, and spiritual. The resulting picture is bright.

“We were trying to take the strengths-based approach,” says Cate O’Brien, vice president and director of Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging.

This approach is the next wave in socialization research and interventions, another researcher in engagement and behavior change agrees.

“We want to come from a positive psychology approach—how to help people thrive,” says John Piette, PhD, professor in the Department of Health Behavior Health Education at University of Michigan, and senior research scientist at the Veterans Administration (see “Online vs. In Person,” p.12).

“Research shows that projects based in positive psychology can improve your mood, increase your cognitive functioning, and more,” Piett’s presentation says.

“The first wave of interventions to address loneliness were not very successful,” he says. Many involved getting a young person to come to someone’s house, where they usually ended up watching TV. Another type of intervention, inviting older adults out, had obstacles, too, in mobility, for instance.

But the biggest obstacle to success is a behavior phenomenon: “Lonely people develop maladaptive thought processes,” Piette says. Thus, these interventions could lead to people becoming negative, or feeling worse about themselves—they can get the impression that they are a burden or an object of pity. It becomes a downward spiral.

To pull people out, he says, “you have to think about how to make the interaction successful and useful.”

Usefulness was also a big factor in the Age Well Study: A “sense of purpose,” or vocational wellness, was one of the six dimensions of wellness addressed—and another shown to be greater among Life Plan Community residents than among the community at large.

While the study doesn’t yet look at reasons why, the report posits that more access to services, opportunities, and simple daily encounters could be the reason for higher vocational and social wellness. In other words, the downward spiral may not get a chance to take hold.

Cognitive health connection?

Solidly connecting social engagement to cognitive health is another matter. With so many looking for brain health solutions, from crosswords to computer games, there’s a temptation to declare socialization the next brain booster. A paper from the Global Council on Brain Health summarizes the current state: Continued research is needed into the connection between social engagement and cognitive decline.

But memory care is already on board to make socialization naturally a greater part of residents’ daily life. “Socialization is excellent brain exercise,” says Dr. Adam Wolff, medical director at the Alumia Institute in Denver, in an email interview. The Alumia Institute is a new memory care campus for daily attendance, using the Kynemics program, a multidomain intervention—physical, cognitive, nutritional, and social.

Social interaction is a major brain workout, using “many cognitive skills, including attention, language, executive functioning, personality, and knowledge of current events, to name a few,” Dr. Wolff says. And “socialization provides pleasure, which also stimulates neuronal functioning.”

Socialization-encouraging activities at Alumia include working in teams to solve brain teasers and daily education classes, not only from staff, but from each other: Members teach peers about subjects important to them, such as travel or food.