Independence Days

Growing Older

What makes this kind of growth possible? Simple demographics tell part of the story. Using recent Census Bureau statistics, ALFA estimates that 3.1 million Americans were over the age of 85 in 1990. By contrast, a projected 4.3 million Americans will be over 85 in 2000, and by 2010 their numbers will swell to 5.7 million.

Beyond the basic numbers is a question of attitude. Peg Thompson, co-founder of Thompson White & Associates Inc., a Huntsville, Alabama, company that manages and develops retirement and assisted living communities, describes the current cohort of older Americans as an "independent generation.' Folks who weathered the Depression and fought their way through World War II don't want to be treated like invalids--or mere numbers. Moreover, their baby boomer kids are equally adamant about wanting the best for their parents.

Before assisted living, the traditional alternatives for people who needed help with daily living were nursing homes and home care. But neither choice was ideal for a significant number of seniors, says Paul Klaassen, whose assisted living business, Fairfax, Virginia-based Sunrise Assisted Living Inc., went public in 1996 and saw $47.3 million in revenues that year. "There were far too many people in nursing homes when we started Sunrise in 1981,' remembers Klaassen. "Nursing homes are essentially [health care] institutions. We thought there wasn't any reason to be institutionalizing people simply because they had care needs.'

Home care is less institutional. "But it's expensive," says Klaassen. "You still have the expenses of maintaining a home, plus the added cost of care. And home care doesn't really address the isolation that many seniors feel.'

Assisted living, by contrast, often provides a happy solution. Though facilities vary considerably in size, style and range of services offered, the concept of assisted living remains constant from place to place. ALFA defines it as "a special combination of housing, supportive services, personalized assistance and health care designed to respond to the individual Assisted living, by contrast, often provides a happy solution. Though facilities vary considerably in size, style and range of services offered, the concept of assisted living remains constant from place to place. ALFA defines it as "a special combination of housing, supportive services, personalized assistance and health care designed to respond to the individual needs of those who need help with the activities of daily living.' This may include anything from mobility problems to memory disorders and incontinence. Assisted living residents usually have access to housekeeping, common dining facilities, round-the-clock security and assistance, as well as social activities. At an average cost of $72 per day, assisted living is also more economical than skilled nursing.

Keeping residents safe and happy is an obvious priority. But the assisted living philosophy also emphasizes respect for individual dignity and privacy. "Assisted living starts with the assumption that we are dealing with people,' says Seldin. "We're here to not only provide for their physical needs but to recognize their individuality. Even the language we use is different. The institutional model uses the word `patient' and all that it connotes. We don't call our residents `patients.' It's not just a semantic difference; it affects the way we view people, and how they view themselves.'

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This article was originally published in the July 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Independence Days.

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