alternatives for senior living

Dr. Bill Thomas Leads the Way with Better Alternatives for Senior Living

Geriatrician Bill Thomas is renowned for his innovative thinking, which has helped transform the industry’s understanding of aging, aging services, and senior living. Dr. Thomas is a Nexus Insights Fellow and founder of The Eden Alternative, The Green House Project, and Minka. Not one to rest on his laurels, Thomas recently traveled the country, talking with elders and their care partners in more than 125 cities. He learned about their hopes and fears, and listened to their stories. What did he discover? That people want better alternatives for senior living. “It turns out that older people pretty much want what everyone else wants: to belong to a community that includes people of all ages and remain connected to the living world,” Thomas said. 

He took the insights gained during his travels to apply towards three important initiatives: Lifesprk, Kallimos Communities, and Canopy. Each one designed to upend traditional approaches to senior living. Each one is designed to put the resident at the center of the solution.

Thomas has recently been named the Chief Independence Officer of Lifesprk, a company taking a state-of-the-art approach to senior housing and services. This title reflects Lifesprk’s approach to seniors, and their efforts to improve quality of life for seniors, by providing a more holistic and wellness-centered experience. Lifesprk integrates housing with home and community-based services, and recognizes the uniqueness of each resident and their individual life goals.

Lifesprk acquired Tealwood Senior Living, a Minnesota-based company with 35 senior living communities across Minnesota and Wisconsin. Included are three communities offering skilled nursing services, where Lifesprk plans to test its innovative approach. The goal is to provide continuity of care, to make it possible for residents to receive care in their own homes, and to reduce the need for care at hospitals or clinics. The result will help seniors retain their independence longer, be healthier and lead richer lives.

“One-hundred percent of the people living in [senior living communities] need access to primary care, and over time an increasingly high percentage of them need access to supports and services,” said Thomas in an interview with Senior Housing News. “What if a provider of housing is able to wrap the housing access around to primary care and supported services? That’s what’s coming down the pike.”

Thomas’s second initiative is Kallimos Communities, an affordable multi-generational community. The vision for Kallimos is to improve wellness and reduce loneliness for its residents at an affordable cost, by encouraging neighborliness and multigenerational shared housing. “Some of the loneliest elders in America live at home on streets filled with houses but without friends, family, or neighbors as part of their daily life,” Thomas said. “Large senior living buildings offer a solution for some but can be expensive and often carry the stigma of being “old folks’ homes.”

“Let’s create a model that’s actually based on one of the oldest ideas we have, which is people living in their own homes.” –  Dr. Bill Thomas

Each Kallimos community consists of “pocket neighborhoods,” which will have up to 50 small homes clustered around a shared green space. The communities will include public amenities, such as small shops for basic goods and services, gathering areas and swimming pools. Along with traditional administrative staff, the communities will include “weavers”, designated staff who have the job of  encouraging connections among residents, and supporting residents in achieving their health and life goals. Additional staff known as “keepers” will maintain the indoor and outdoor areas, and may be responsible for cooking and gardening.

Two initial Kallimos communities in Colorado and Texas are in early stages of development. The design is based on a set of principles introduced by Thomas, and further developed by the University of Southern Indiana, called MAGIC (multi-ability, multi-generational, inclusive communities.) The homes will be compact, and designed with features and technology that will support aging in place. 

The COVID-19 pandemic also cast a glaring spotlight on disadvantages of traditional senior living, with elders clustered together in one large building. This clustering put elderly residents, who were in the highest risk category for severe illness and death from the disease, at a much greater risk for exposure to the disease. 

Deinstitutionalization of the nation’s nursing homes was a clear answer which led to Dr. Thomas’ involvement in Canopy, a joint project with Signature Healthcare. Canopy has many similarities to Kallimos. Canopy communities are a cluster of small, close together ADA-accessible houses, focusing on the importance of neighborhoods. Services, such as assistance with many activities of daily living, is typically a component of nursing home living. For people living in Canopy, services will be provided efficiently within the residents’ homes. And in many cases, neighbors can help neighbors.

“I’m saying, let’s go beyond, let’s move past the era of mass institutionalization,” said Thomas, in an interview with Politico. “Let’s create a model that’s actually based on one of the oldest ideas we have, which is people living in their own homes.”

In fact, funding for non-medical services, such as rides to the grocery store, help prepping meals, and meal delivery, have recently started being covered by private Medicare plans. The trend toward increasing coverage of home and community-based services (HCBS) is expected to continue. “The pendulum’s swinging to home and community-based services,” said Thomas. “And in order to make those services really work, we need better homes and better communities — and that’s what Canopy is designed to provide.”

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