Have you visited an assisted living facility for the elderly lately? If you have, I'll bet it was clean and professional, but also unspeakably sad. The residents are well cared for, but they look lonely and bored and forgotten. Maybe we should figure out how to fix that situation before it's our turn.
If you consider the huge demographic wave of retirees coming down the road, and the fact that many haven't saved enough for retirement, and the fact that science keeps finding ways to keep our withered bodies alive longer, we have a big problem brewing. Where will all of those old people live?
Some oldsters will live with family, of course, and some will be independent until the end. But that still leaves tens of millions of old people in need of assisted living. What will that look like?
Let's begin by imagining an elder care facility designed to stimulate the residents and provide a great quality of life. Current facilities appear to be designed for efficiency, more like hospitals than hotels. What we have now are clean and bright facilities that are needlessly depressing. Let's start by getting some better colors in there, and adding some real design. Every room should have a second floor view of something beautiful and interesting, a gas fireplace, porcelain tile floors, interesting lighting, beamed ceiling, and a little extra space. Think of a lake cabin or a Spanish bungalow. Good design costs more, of course, but I'll talk about economics later.
Now imagine that each room has a huge flat screen TV on the wall, and speakers in the ceilings. The residents would also have the option of wireless headphones with built-in microphones for Skype calling, or for listening to loud shows, or music, or books on tape. I imagine the remote control for all of this in the form of an arm band, so it never gets misplaced during the day.
The TV and speaker systems for the one-room apartments would have interfaces designed especially for old people. The upcoming wave of elderly people will be comfortable enough with technology that we will have more options than before. The onscreen menus would be large and simple, and also operate on voice command. The lights, phone, and temperature would also be controllable from the menu on the TV. Let's also assume the oldsters can use the armband controller to speak directly with the staff in case they need something.
The genius part of my idea involves locating the elder care facility next to an animal rescue facility. It's the perfect symbiotic relationship. Both the old people and the animals want company. They can have each other all day long. There will be some extra hygiene issues, but humans live with dogs and cats now without much trouble. We might want to create common areas for human and pet interaction, to keep the fleas out of the main living areas.
I would also combine the elder care facility in the same building with a childcare area. Kids are germ carriers, and you wouldn't want much direct contact between the snot nosed kids and the seniors. But I think you could let the healthier seniors work part time in the childcare facility to give them something active to do. And for the rest of the seniors, it's just a happier environment when you can see kids coming and going, and playing behind glass windows. Call it the ambiance of life. And in some cases, the kids might be the grandkids of residents.
I'd also want each senior to have his or her own garden space, arranged in rows, at wheelchair height, in a common greenhouse. This gives the seniors something to cultivate and have fun with. There's something about gardening that appeals to most old people.
Now imagine a kid-sized soccer field in the courtyard of the assisted living facility. During the school day, the kids from childcare would use it to run wild. After school, older kids from the area would schedule the field for team sports. The elderly residents would have front row wheelchair access to watch the action.
Now imagine that the seniors can use their big screen TVs to Skype with family and friends from anywhere in their apartment. And let's assume the interface is designed with only a few visible options, such as "Call Timmy" or "Answer Call." If your grandma is in the facility, just fire up your iPad and visit her without leaving your couch. If you're having a birthday party for a grandkid, set up the call on the iPad and just leave its camera pointing in the direction of the action. Grandma will feel like she's in the room.
I can also imagine wheelchairs of the future being motorized and guided by a sort of in-house GPS system. If grandma wants to visit the animal petting area, or take a ride through the adjacent park to get some sun, she just tells the chair where she wants to go and it takes off on a slow ride.
Let's also imagine that all recreational drugs become legal for people over the age of 75. While drugs are clearly bad for kids, can we say the same thing about senior citizens? Recreational drugs might actually keep seniors healthier by increasing their happiness, energy, appetites, and general interest in life. And it's not as if seniors in assisted living will be operating heavy equipment or making important decisions. I don't see a downside.
Now that we've done a great job designing the assisted living facilities to be stimulating and life-affirming, how do we pay for all of that extra stuff without government assistance?
For starters, the facility can have a few extra sources of income. The childcare wing would be an income source, as would the sports field that could be rented out. I could also imagine beautiful garden areas around the grounds that are suitable for weddings and events. That's another revenue source. The facility could cater the reception as well. All of this activity helps to make the residents feel connected to the circle of life.
Now imagine that these senior facilities are owned and operated by a company that also sells long term care insurance. People would start paying for their assisted living while still relatively young. With insurance, most people will pay and never reap the benefits. I think people would pay a premium to know they have a guaranteed spot in a high end assisted living place if the time comes. Compare that sort of investment to the stock market, which is iffy at best. I think an argument can be made that investing in your own future assisted living is the smartest retirement investment you can make.