Bracing for the Boomers

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Valeria Salivonchik and Herber Hawkins (Photo: Theresa Curry)

Experts Scramble to Predict the Needs of the Next Generation of Elders

Marta Keane called it “the mouse moving through the snake:” the swell of baby boomers proceeding through the different stages of life, changing music, work culture, parenting and now the whole way we think about aging.

It’s the aging that’s Keane’s concern. She’s the CEO of JABA (Jefferson Area Board for Aging), which oversees aging services for Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson Counties.  As she sees it, people who live in the most desirable parts of JABA’s outreach area should be bracing for a double whammy.

“First,” Keane said, “People tend to want to stay here as they age. And at the same time, others from less desirable places will be moving here.” The day’s not far off, she said, when one in four people living here will be older than 65. That situation will go on for years, she predicted: “For the boomers, staying healthy and fit is a top concern, so we anticipate they’ll stay around for quite a while.”

Developers, urban planners, culinary entrepreneurs and service providers are all hustling to anticipate what this giant cohort will expect as their lives slowly change. Keane pointed out an advantage to this situation she believes is often overlooked: “This is a group that will not only be distinguished by their needs,” she said. “We need to think about what they have to offer. They’ll make a significant contribution as work demands lessen. They have a history of activism and social engagement. They’ll volunteer, start businesses and embrace causes.”

Keane spoke about JABA’s senior living community in the heart of Crozet. “We believe Mountainside has a lot of what baby boomers will be looking for when the time comes.” Residents make use of town businesses and cultural activities rather than being restricted to whatever they can find on site. And the reverse is true. Individuals as well as groups from the Western Albemarle area find spending time with the residents to be rewarding.

Judy Bowes says the same about The Lodge at Old Trail, where she serves as executive director.  She said David Hilliard, the Lodge’s owner, wanted to change the idea of a retirement community as a kind of isolated complex shielding its residents from the world outside. “He wanted to provide all kinds of social engagement. I’ve spent my profession in these kinds of communities and when I saw what he was doing I wanted to be a part of it.”

The advantages of being part of a larger community are visibly daily. Bowes said she sees one resident’s grandson from her window almost every morning. “He rolls by on his skateboard, tips it up and comes inside for a visit.”

Everyone knows that that the baby boomers are not going to march down to dinner at 5 pm for institutional food. Bowes said today’s adult communities are very much aware of that. “Luckily, we are so new that we didn’t have to change much.” There was one change, she said: “We have full-size kitchens, even in assisted living, and we found that many of our residents still like to cook.” Residents can choose a minimal meal plan, about half of what was included at first.

And a wide range of meals are offered over a wide range of times: “We’re very aware that people expect gluten-free, vegetarian, low-fat and low-salt options,” Bowes said. Rather than using processed food or subscribing to an institutional supplier, meals are designed by a chef who meets with residents regularly to assess needs and requirements.

JABA’s Marta Keane says that the dietary manager and pastry chef at Mountainside are adept at tailoring meals that meet the nutritional requirements of their residents. Right now, the baby boomers’ parents prefer traditional lunch fare like hot dogs, salads, sandwiches and hamburgers, Keane said, but she suspects that will not be the case when their children start filling the apartments of Mountainside.

“Food is a huge deal for our residents,” said Herbert Hawkins, dietary manager for Mountainside. “They’re always talking about the menus.” And they’ll walk into the dining room and the first thing they’ll ask is “what’s for dessert,” said Valeria Salivonchik, the pastry chef. Hawkins said he’s seen a change in the residents over time. “These people have been watching the Food Network and they just know a lot.”

He expects the boomers, who were exposed to gourmet and competitive cooking earlier in their lives, will be even more knowledgeable, and he sees that now in families looking at Mountainside for their parents.

Hawkins is not sure whether the next generation will be healthier than his current residents or not: “In the time I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen a trend towards less healthy seniors, with less family support,” he said. “Of course, the older ones grew up with real food and were often farmers themselves. No one really knows everything that’s in the food they eat now.”

Hawkins and Salivonchik deal diplomatically with the tension between what their residents might want and what’s good for them; and try to offer different versions of the same dish for every taste. There’s always an alternate menu for those who have allergies and sometimes, “we’ll just cook to order if that’s what they want,” Hawkins said. “It’s easy enough to make someone a bowl of soup and a sandwich if nothing on the menu or alternate menu appeals to them.” Salivonchik is an expert at cooking with reduced and no sugar, and she also watches the fat: “One thing we know now is that it’s not just sugar at fault with diabetes,” she said.

To acknowledge that many residents have traveled, and that they are curious about other cuisines, they schedule a night at Mountainside each month where they offer food typical of another country. They also offer specially prepared birthday dinners for each resident, whether it be pig’s feet and applesauce; or lobster, steak and scallops, both actual recent birthday requests.

“When it comes to choice, people want more and more,” Hawkins said. “This will continue with each new wave.”

Besides food and a local community, there’s another factor that will affect the boomers’ decisions, The Lodge’s Bowes said. “The generation before the boomers had a dismal picture of what were then called nursing homes; in many cases, rightfully so.” This played out in all kinds of ways with the mom and dad being terrified of institutionalization. But the boomers are seeing how things have changed and will not be so resistant.

“I have many children of aging parents touring the place and saying, ‘Mom, I could live here,’” she said.

Regardless of how well people think they know the needs of the next generation of elders, JABA’s Keane has a warning: “We like to make generalizations about each demographic,” she said.

“It’s important to remember that there really is no monolithic set of characteristics. Whether it’s millennials or baby boomers, everyone is different.”

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