Blog #108 – Retirement Communities such as Vista del Monte: Planning Models for Utopias,?


Blog #108 – Retirement Communities such as Vista del Monte: Models for Utopias, or?

We have just moved to Vista del Monte, a retirement continuing care community in Santa Barbara, California. Our thus far brief but stimulating time here has raised some puzzling questions for us, starting with the question of whether it is an ideal community for its present residents, and then in its efforts to be so is it a model useful for planners and generally anyone concerned with influencing the communities in a more humane, more democratic, more equitable direction? So two questions:

  1. Is it a model of what an ideal community in a less than ideal world would be like? How so, or why not? And for whom?
  2. What is the role of such a community, outside its own bounds, for social policy and community development in general? How so, or why not? And for whom?

{This Blog #1O8 should perhaps be skimmed, and then read in conjunction with Blog #109, still in the works, which goes further into the discussion of retirement communities as possible  ideal communities with lessons for urban planning in the future.}

On a personal note, the decision to research and write up our experience at Vista had two motivations. One was, simply to understand the new situation in which we found ourselves, the better to adapt to it to understand both its potentials and limitations. to guide our own lives in our new circumstance. The other motivation was a growing professional and personal curiosity about the role of the community we were entering in the context of urban planning principles embedded in our long-time interest in social and political and economic activities contributing to the common good. And there was simple intellectual curiosity about what made the new community in which we were tick, what motivated its players, what impacted their lives, what effect it had, if any, on the world around it.

And a personal reflection about the presumptions we brought to this effort about the very concept of a retirement community. These became clearer as we proceeded. in our consideration of whether or not to move to from our sixty-year occupancy of a three-bedroom single family house in a declining industrial community of some 130,000 residents on the east coast in which we had lived as a couple for over 67 years, to move to a higher-income region on the West Coast of about the same size of which we had learned from a son living near that community.

What is a retirement community, essentially? Is it simply a realistic response to the acknowledgement that our lives have finite endings, that the effort to make a living, raise a family, achieve some level of recognition, is over, the beginning of the end of life, hoping to phase out in comfort and grace? And was the community to which we were moving, that we had freely chosen simply the result of a search by individuals of retirement age or older about  how to spend their declining years, not relevant for anyone still in their prime or  younger? Did it have lessons anyone concerns for bettering their community, perhaps with implications for our society as a whole? Was it a search for a possible model utopia, worth examining for lessons to be learned by others in the future, or was it simply, to be blunt, a selfish concern to die as painlessly and perhaps as slowly as possible? Was it, in other words, a model utopia for the living, or a smoother path out as life was fading?

The likely answer surprised us – by it apparent absence, looked at through the treatment of death among residents formally selected from the outset based on their age,. Calendars abounded on bulletin boards, and many personal life events were recorded there, but not all were celebrated. The community was considered in its literature and recognized officially as a “continuum of care community”, going from facilities for independent living to ones for assisted living, to ones for those with memory disabilities, to ones for those needing skilled care. It did not end, as might have been logical, with hospice facilities, although hospice care is available  in other units. When residents were encouraged to prepare emergency kits in case of fire or earthquake, suggestions to take include, not wills such as those concerned with a premature death might wish to take, but rather passports, looking forward to continuing life beyond  the emergency.

We quickly concluded that our interest, and the focus for this essay, was not in the treatment of death by the elderly, but rather in the lessons for living that might be drawn from their experience before and in retirement.  We believe there are lessons to be learned from the organization of communities such as Vista del Monte valuable for the living of all ages, and well deserving of further study.

****

[The rest of this blog #108 provides an initial dense description the structure and functioning of Vista del Monte, a medium-sized well-regarded Continuum of Care retirement community in California, looking at its Vision statement and its actual organization and functioning. Blog #109 then starts an initial attempt at hypotheses about what the evidence shows about the answers to the questions stated at the beginning.]

Vista del Monte, based on our limited experience, is a very attractive Continuum of Care retirement community in Santa Barbara, Calif, to which we have just moved. We have a two-bedroom unit there.,. It is listed as for Independent Living, and our medical conditions needed to be approved as adequate for what it offers that we want. in beautiful surroundings. It is the largest of seven  types of buildings, going from Independent Living to Assisted Living  to Memory Care to Skilled Nursing, The Skilled Nursing unit was formerly included in the project’s campus but is now provided by links to a separate development near-by, also non-profit, but the result of financial decisions by the non-profit board of Vista that caused significant controversy among residents when  it was announced.

Vista del Monte, between the mountains and the sea, is a community of some 150 units, with a wide range of facilities and activities Ours is a unit with two bedrooms, most have one bed room, and a few are studio-style units of one room. All, whatever their size, have a basic kitchen, an option for two or three meals a day at three separate smaller and one larger central dining room. We think it will be ideal for visitors. We really don’t know quite what to expect in what will be essentially a completely new life for us, but we hope that close continuing contact even if at a distance with family and friends here will make it at least endurable, and even a pleasant way to keep going as far as our abilities will let us. Even with limitations: less travel, no doubt, but forms of communication and contact are multifarious today, and we hope to make full use of them.

Apartments in the development rent around $7,000, depending on size and configuration and level of services requested. They include Independent Living, Assisted Living, Memory Dependent, and Skilled Nursing units (for now). with various financing arrangements. Our unit is a two bedroom, living room, tiny kitchen. We received a moderate discount because they had just converted it to two bedrooms by adding one room to a one-bedroom-living room unit; they haven’t put in a washer-dryer unit or replaced the bathtub with a shower stall yet. It’s on the second floor of the largest building, with a small balcony, an elevator and stairs down the hall. We’re in an “independent living” unit. There are grab bars all over, window blinds, wall-to-wall rugs, no furniture at all; we had to buy a bed, and shipped key furniture from home. Services included in the rent include 2 meals a day in the dining room in an attached building, linens, towels, housekeeping every two weeks, pets only with a surcharge, a garage and a shuttle service to downtown Santa Barbara, weekly linen service and bi-weekly housekeeping, meals delivered to apartments on request with minor fee, a basic health clinic, wifi and cable connections, maybe a mile from the beach. Very few people have cars. Personal trips, including to doctors, are available at a charge.

The development was originally built by a teachers’ retirement fund, since bought by Front Porch, inc., a non-profit development of retirement homes.[1] It receives significant gifts from patrons, but to my knowledge no public subsidies although the Community College, for instance, holds some classes on request at the development . The grounds are beautifully landscaped by a garden maintenance staff, flowers on every dining room table. There is a health clinic with limited services and hours. Some residents have cars.

Staff – estimated at150 persons, for a total resident population of about twice that. The dining room staff is largely but not exclusively Spanish speaking and bilingual, some recruited from among students at the  local community college. They seem to be well trained and are knowledgeable and friendly, addressing us by our first names after the first two weeks, and likewise known to residents by their first names, Employees arebeneficiaries of a scholarship fund, have holiday celebrations. And share in the befits from several Vist available resources. Perhaps ten or more Hispanic and African-Americans are on the administrative staff.[2] Both staff and residents include foreign -born  individuals.

Social—inter-personal—relations seem uniformly warm and friendly. The dining room has tales of 4 and 6 persons, and people are shown to empty seats where ever they may be, so mixing is general. Everybody introduces themselves if someone not known to them sits with them, and backgrounds are exchanged. Women outnumber men perhaps 2 to1 Couples are in a minority, but not rare. We have sat and conversed with engineers, teachers, just now a psychiatrist, our neighbor is a sculptress in wood, at least half a dozen are or speak German. There are Catholic communion services and Hanukkah programs around the respective holidays, some off-campus available by shuttle bus. .

Social programming is extensive. We have met, in our 5 weeks here, the Maintenance/Housekeeping Planner, the Director of Sales and Marketing. and the Marketing Manager, the Spiritual Life Program Leader, (who was interested in our Frankfurt School connection), the Director of Life Enrichment, the Director of Human Resources, the Director of Resident Services, the Director of Sales and Marketing, the Payroll Coordinator , the Executive Director, the Director of Maintenance, and the Dining Specialist. Perhaps ten of the staff with named positions are Spanish-speaking.

Both a monthly and a Weekly calendar are regularly posted and distributed, Monthly is for major scheduled events, and there is a weekly list of menus and a description of social events or cultural programs provided each day that week, ranging from current events class/discussion group run by the S.B. Community College, to singing groups, excursions by bus to the pier at the beach, to Trader Joe’s, and to any destination within a 50 mile radius on request of residents.

Programs are provided for virtually every hour of every day, from 9:00 a.m to 8:OO p.m, ranging from Chair Exercises to Music Appreciation to Mindfulness Meditation to Art with Wendy to Ping Pong Holiday Sing-fest  to Home Technology Support Insights through Literature, Yoga Our Way to Brain Fitness Games.

Organizations. Groups self-organize. One to which we were introduced meets weekly at dinner to discuss a particular newspaper or journal article chosen by a member. There is a apparently one group that meets, perhaps at dinner, to speak to each other in French, and one is talked about for German. There is apparently an agreements, implicit but observed, that neither politics nor the financial operations of the development should be discussed at casuaal meals, and we have encountered very little desire to do so. It seems quite clear to us that the majority of residents are anti-Trump and civil rights oriented, but most not in a day-to-day activist fashion.

There is a Vista Residents Association, in which all residents are automatically members. Officers are elected by the membership, committee chairs appointed by the President, It has an elaborate committee structure, with some 23 committees to which residents are encouraged to volunteer,  The President appoints committee chair persons.  Those in turn form a small sort of Leadership Committee. The Association meets bi-weekly, the Leadership weekly; all members are welcome to attend all meeting, which are publicized, and minutes distributed to all.

In practice, it all seems designed to maximize participation, but is purely advisory, with decision-making firmly in the hands of Front Porch, the non-profit company whose headquarters are in Glendale, CA..  The arrangement is, from what I have seen, widely recognized and accepted. On small matters, the committee’s’ recommendations are generally effective: decisions as to garden design, plantings, choice of programs among those made available, e.g. movies or excursions or celebrations, are democratically made, with open discussion.

That does not, however, apply to basic business decisions of the enterprise, which remain in the hands of Front Porch, itself a non-profit company owning a number of retirement communities on the West Coast and providing services to other retirement companies elsewhere..

It is not clear to me what the legal structure of  Vista del Monte, the name by which the development is generally known, is. Typically, conventional business decisions, e.g. the level of rents, what services are provided free and which have fees over and above the rent, expansion or contraction of the physical campus, growth models. evictions, etc. Front Porch is a 501.c3 corporation that owns Vista del Monte, as well a 13 other retirement communities with a total of 1588 beds, of which 1243 are Independent Living, 87 are Memory Care, and 258 Care Center units. In Vista itself, 169 are Independent Living,  19 are Memory Care, and 258 Care Center units. and provides them with services and management. [3]

Labor relations: employee wages or terms of employment, are not part of the agendas for the Vista Residents’ Association. There is an e\Employees Association. which is apparently entirely employee run, and is active in programming that affects employees, e.g. adjusting hours of meal service  for holidays or celebrations . No tipping is allowed, but there is a Vista Employees Fund, a 5O1c3 – based on the Vista Teachers Retirement Fund, that being the predecessor and original builder of the present development. Its income is entirely from voluntary contributions, which just now is collecting funds   from residents to be distributed to employees for the holidays and used to fund school scholarships and emergency help for employees under stress. The employees that operate the kitchen, wait on tables and do the maintenance, are friendly, often know the residents by their first names and vice versa. Everyone, to an outsider, seems very satisfied with the arrangements.

The one limited exception to the non-discussion of development business issues we are aware of is the decision of Front Porch, the large non-profit which owns Vista del Monte, to close its skilled nursing building, convert it to Memory Care housing, and outsource the skilled care to a nearby well-regarded non-profit facility. The issue came up at a Residents’ Committee report meeting, some questions were raised, answers weren’t available, it was pointed out that the committee’s opinions didn’t really make much difference since it was only advisory, and the meeting moved on.

 

So, looking at this very preliminary and sketchy case study of one retirement community, what conclusions might one explore as to possible broader implications forurban planning, my own field of work?

Blog #109 is intended to continue the discussion. Comments in advance very welcome.

[1] Front Porch describes itself as “the parent of Vista del Monte… and the largest southern California based provider of not-for-Profit retirement housing and services. It operates in California , Louisiana, and Florida.

[2] Vista is an equal opportunity housing provider under California law, with CA License #425800464  COA #196

 [3] From the auditors report for March 2016.

 

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Author: pmarcuse

Just starting this blog, for short pieces on current issues. Suggestions for improvement, via e-mail, very welcome. pm35@columbia.edu

2 thoughts on “Blog #108 – Retirement Communities such as Vista del Monte: Planning Models for Utopias,?”

  1. Dear Mr. Marcuse,
    I am a very busy “houser,” wife, mom and caretaker of my parents who are/were residents of VdM. I came to your name and blog in a very unusual way. I was following a link of Lowell Bergman, a board member of my old employer that I am very fond of (Center for Investigative Reporting). I noticed that he studied Critical Theory under your father in San Diego. I have always been curious about Critical Theory so I followed that string and found your name in your father’s Wikipedia page. I noticed that you are a Urban Planner and that started your career at UCLA (of which I am an alumna-2005) and that you continued your work in NY. I did a google search on your name and found this blog post of which was completely overwhelmed to find!

    I work in housing policy formerly with the City of Oakland for 10 years (5 of them working under Jeff Levin now of EBHO) but recently left due to the City’s complete dysfunction and am currently working for the City of San Leandro for now. I am very interested in the question of the care of the “silver tsunami.” I find that the current system is untenable. I also grapple with the decision (or non-decision) of my parent’s–who were products of the 50’s and American culture of endless youth–denial of anything related to the end of their life. Of course I am not in that position and apologize if my frank discussion of this particular point is offensive to you. I am also very interested in Atul Gawande’s writing on this subject.

    ANYWAYS, my parents have been living at VdM since July 2011. They lived together in the memory care unit as my mom had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s that prompted their admittance to that unit. After a year my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s too (another story in itself and a product of my armchair unsubstantiated scientific theories that it was caused by my parents owning and operating a dry cleaning business in SB for almost 40 years). Within 6 months of his diagnosis my mom was placed on hospice. After 18 months on hospice, she was taken off hospice and transferred to the SNF. Suffice to say I was impacted by Front Porch’s closure and was incredibly frustrated with how they handled it. I finally found a location for my mom at the Samarkand and I think we are back to somewhat “normal” day-to-day life for now. My dad continues to be a resident of the memory care unit at VdM.

    I will look for your entry #109 and will read it with interest. Your blog on this subject is very interesting to me! It would be so wonderful to meet you the next time I am in SB visiting my parents at VdM. Please let me know if you are interested.

    Sincerely,
    maryann sargent
    berkeley, CA

    p.s. If you email me, it might take me a while to respond as I work full time (and in the midst of a housing crisis), so I apologize in advance for that.

    1. Maryann sargent,

      I would love to meet you — for a number of reasons:
      to talk about your Lowell Bergman and critical theory and investigative reporting.\; to hear about your families” experience with Vista del Monte;
      to talk about housing and retirement communities and how planning should handle the silver tsunami (first I heard the term, but nice!), both n the context of affordable housing and of planning retirement communities.
      Do let us know when you are next here, and let’s get together. My email is pm35@Columbia.edu, phone is 805 879 7714.

      And I apologize for getting back to you so tardily. I only skim comments on my blog, saw yours, noted I wanted to answer, then couldn’t find it again. Found it just now, almost by accident. What’s the best way to contact you?

      Peter

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