This new “small-house” concept could be a guide for post-pandemic senior living

This new “small-house” concept could be a guide for post-pandemic senior living

Photo: Courtesy of the Jewell Agency

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Southminster quietly opened a $60 million facility last fall, during the heart of a pandemic, that might serve as one model for senior living in a post-COVID era.

The community’s new four-story Embrace Health building has two floors for skilled nursing residents — those who require assistance for daily tasks — arranged as four “small-house” communities.  Each small house has no more than 15 residents, all living in their own independent spaces.

  • They share kitchens and dining areas and set their own schedules, but in the event of a viral infection of any sort, it can be contained within the house without shutting down the rest of the campus.

Why it matters: Charlotte’s status as one of the most attractive cities in the country for millennials makes it also very attractive for their parents. The region ranks No. 1 for “Baby Chasers,” or Baby Boomers who are choosing to retire closer to their grandchildren, according to Meyers Research.

  • The need for a more diverse assortment of senior living options will only increase as this independent-minded generation of grandparents grows older.

Southminster‘s had Embrace Health in the works for nearly 7 years: It’s part of a $120 million expansion that included the Terraces, an independent living apartment complex that opened in 2019.

The new facilities reflect how “life plan” communities are trying to reinvent each stage of the aging process for the new wave of seniors, with the goal of keeping them independent as long as possible, says Ben Bumgardner, the assistant administrator for Embrace Health, who gave me a virtual tour last month.

Southminster Embrace health

A dining area in one of the small houses. Photo: Courtesy of the Jewell Agency

The big picture: The year 2019 marks the first time in U.S. history that there were more people over the age of 60 than under the age of 18.

  • About 10% of Mecklenburg County’s population — or 100,000 people — is 65 and older, and that number will only continue to grow, according to a landmark study of the area’s aging population directed by UNC Charlotte in 2019.
  • The study, Meck60+, said that about 43% of adults 60 and older in Mecklenburg County live alone.
  • Those living alone are fairly evenly spread across the county, but the one difference is in gender: 49% of older women report living alone here, compared to 29% of older men.

    How it works: Embrace Health is of many efforts throughout the county to give seniors a way to stay connected while independent. It is Southminster’s adaptation of the small-house model founded in 2003 in Mississippi by Dr. Bill Thomas, who calls himself a “nursing-home abolitionist.”

    Thomas’s idea was to house about a dozen to two dozen people in independent rooms in houses where they can socialize, eliminating the “congregate” nature. And each house has dedicated nurses who know the residents.

    • At Southminster, each small house has a very Charlotte name — Selwyn, Park, Colony and Carmel — arranged on the second and third floors the Embrace Health building. About 34 of the 60 rooms are occupied now.
    • Each room has a lift that’s built into the beams in the ceiling. Anyone who’s had a family member in a nursing home knows this is a daily-life-changer: It means no more waiting for that one lift on the hall to make its way to the room of a loved one who’s in distress.

    “The industry is built around servicing the largest capacity with the fewest people, so we’re [as an industry] warehousing the elderly,” says Stewart Wiley, Southminster’s director of marketing. “We really want this to be a light.”

    The fourth floor, Providence, has 25 one-bedroom apartments for assisted living residents who don’t need the daily care from nurses. It has a restaurant called The Uptown that’s as fine as anything you’d find in center city. All but one of those apartments is already occupied.

    The first floor of Embrace Health is operated by Levine & Dickson Hospice House, and has 12 beds available for inpatient hospice care.

    southminster room

    A skilled nursing room at Embrace Health. Photo courtesy the Jewell Agency

    Cost: Of course, the biggest challenge is that care like this doesn’t come cheap. Southminster’s rates are between $245-$296 per day for assisted living, and between $369-$401 a day for skilled nursing.

    When should you start looking? Wiley heaps praise upon other senior living communities in Charlotte, from Aldersgate to Sharon Towers, and says it’s a little like picking a college in that it’s about finding the right fit for you. But the key with any decision on life planning, he says, is to start looking while you or your loved ones are still healthy.

    • “Your prognosis for living a longer life is if you come when you’re still independent,” Wiley says. “Where it becomes a problem is if you come when you wait for something to happen.”

    My thought bubble: I spent a good portion of the 2010s helping to take care of my father after a series of strokes. The last months of his life were a blur of sadness and staring down long white hallways, waiting on an overworked staff member to come help, wondering if there was another way. This seems like a whole different experience.

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