Back Fence

A Disneyland for Old Folks

As assisted living residences become modern and fun filled, does their new direction represent an improvement in dignity?

By Kathryn Robinson December 20, 2016 Published in the January 2017 issue of Seattle Met

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Image: Adam Hancher

Somewhere on my tour of Aegis’s newest assisted living property in Seattle, between the grand staircase and the temperature-controlled wine cooler—I realized I wasn’t smelling, you know, the smell.

Like a lot of people my age, my friend J and I were sizing up the Aegis of Queen Anne at Rodgers Park—in our case, for her newly widowed mother. As the demographic bulge of the baby boomer generation passes into its senior years, aging has become big business. Enter Redmond-based Aegis CEO and founder Dwayne Clark, who runs 29 West Coast Aegis residences—13 in the Seattle metro area—and is currently building seven more.

Clark speaks proudly about his properties, which many in the industry call the wave of the future—and which are not, indeed, your grandma’s nursing home. Not my grandma’s, anyway, where old folks in wheelchairs sat adrift in malodorous hallways. By contrast, Aegis of Queen Anne at Rodgers Park is all new-home smell, from the crafting room downstairs to the martini bar up top. We passed chandeliered grand halls and sitting areas done up like East India Company train cars.

“Is it just me—or is this…Disneyland?” whispered J.

It wasn’t just her.

As assisted living residences overcome their former rap, a question emerges in its place whether the new direction represents much improvement in dignity. The infantilizing of senior citizens has become a cultural debate, increasing in volume as boomers “discover” old age—along with its attendant humiliations like caregivers using baby talk and pet names—and as proven therapies for dementia increasingly include childlike decor, even toys, to provide comfort and trigger memories.

At Aegis Rodgers Park, the childlikeness extends beyond the lockable doors of its memory care unit. “Every new Aegis property has a theme, and I knew that this kind of Victorian design would fit in very well in Queen Anne,” said Clark, who modeled the place on the Grand Hotel as depicted in the ’80s Jane Seymour–Christopher Reeve movie, Somewhere in Time. So the juice bar in the basement is decked out with a sign in faux-Victorian lettering; the movie theater beside it features an old-fashioned popcorn machine. Across the way, swimsuit-clad mannequins cavort in the air above a saltwater pool.

“We want to shock people!” Clark declares. “Bring sex appeal! Make them think, Wow, this is not what I imagined assisted living to be.’ ” Soon they’ll see the Shanghai hotel–themed residence in Newcastle, with Chinese-speaking staff and mah-jongg games. The Lake Placid Winter Olympics–themed lodge on Mercer Island with a 22-foot waterfall. The Boys in the Boat–themed crew house residence in Eastlake, with sculls and views of Lake Union.

He attests that the younger generation tell him he’s on the right track—which was borne out on my tour. “I want to live here!” a thirtysomething woman touring with her parents raved, peeking in the yoga studio. “Everyone says that,” beamed our guide.

To Patricia Throop of Eldercare Consulting in West Seattle it’s no surprise the next generation admires these places: As the decision makers for their parents, they’re the ones assisted living companies are wooing. Sure, she allows, the smell has improved. “But in ways,” Throop muses, “these places represent a young person’s idea of what an older person wants.”

Take size. The variety of activity areas—along with the grandeur and economies of scale places like Aegis favor—can add up to overwhelming physical spaces. Throop tells of one place so sprawling a client was relieved to get a unit near the elevator. “Older adults can’t walk that far,” Throop says.

Many elder care companies feel competitive pressure to dial up the aesthetics—sometimes at the expense of function. Visiting a 90-year-old friend last fall, I was surprised to find her assisted living residence, run by a different outfit, entirely remodeled. The comfortable, old overstuffed seats and magazine tables in the hallways were replaced by stylish, low-slung leatherette chairs next to hard-edged tables holding not reading material but baskets of mossy balls. “Gimcracks and gewgaws,” grumbled my friend. “They told us they wanted to get rid of everything old,” she said. “We’re old!

Seems it’s hard for us to grasp what that means.

Back at the Grand Hotel, J concluded that its themeyness would mostly make her worldly mother feel patronized. “I don’t think fake old maps and compasses would be comforting nostalgia for her,” she said. Our tour passed a laundry room, which two prospective residents wanted to see. “Laundry service is included, but some residents want to do their own,” our guide laughed. “I’ll never understand that!”

One prospect, an octogenarian from a generation more private than my own, lingered. “I don’t want anyone else washing my things,” she murmured, to no one in particular.

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