Too often, we stash our elders away in institutional residential care facilities. And, sadly, even many active seniors choose to separate themselves from the broader world, opting for what they see as the safety and security of gated communities.  

This week, I spent a couple of days in Rochester, N.Y., where the St John’s Living Community has developed two alternatives to this world of hidden elders. One is a new independent living community that is explicitly opening itself up to the surrounding neighborhood. The second: Two 10-bed nursing homes that have been built in the midst of a middle-class subdivision, as fully integrated into the neighborhood as the private homes that surround it.

At first glance, the independent living community, called Brickstone, is not unlike hundreds of other upscale senior residences. Still under construction, it will include 102 townhouses, apartments, and bungalows, with a community center, walking trails, shops, and restaurants. It is a short walk from another St John’s facility called the Meadows, which provides both independent and assisted living.

What’s different is St. John’s aim to reach outward rather than turn inward. It invited local colleges to teach undergraduate courses at the Meadows. Shops and restaurants at Brickstone’s village square will be open to the broader community, not just limited to its residents. A lecture series is also open to the neighbors and includes programs that include children’s literature and story “slams.” Duane Girdner, St. John’s marketing vp, calls Brickstone an “ungated community.”   

St. John’s other initiative is even more interesting. It has built two “Green House” nursing facilities right in the middle of a new suburban development called Arbor Ridge in Penfield, N.Y.  Green Houses are themselves an important innovation, replacing big institutional nursing facilities with small homes for 8-10 residents.

Green Houses provide residents with broad autonomy, allowing them to choose, for instance, when to get up and when to eat. And they have profoundly changed the role of the nurses and nurse’s aides  who provide direct care. The concept has been around for several years, but until now most Green Houses have shared a campus with sister care facilities, often large, more traditional nursing homes.

St John’s Arbor Ridge project is very different. There, two single-story nursing homes sit in the midst of an otherwise ordinary subdivision.  From the outside, the facilities look much like the ranch houses that share the development. The goal: To integrate the nursing homes –and their residents– as much as possible into the community.

Soon after the facilities opened last spring, St. John’s threw a well-attended community party. Since then, staffers report no complaints or concerns from the neighbors, but neither has there yet been much bonding. 

I’ve visited some similar-sized assisted living facilities that have also located in residential neighborhoods. And the concept works. After a few years, local kids come by for Halloween trick-or-treating, neighbors get to know residents–and  something like a community is created. That’s what St John’s has in mind.   

Of course, the idea of seniors living in community settings is entirely unremarkable. Yet, even elders who live in their own homes are increasingly disconnected from their neighbors.  Old friends move away. Younger couples are busy with their kids. If an elder can no longer walk or has trouble hearing, she is less likely to meet new people. She can be living in a community but entirely isolated from it.

St. John’s is trying repair those broken links, both for active seniors and those with significant cognitive and physical limitations. If it succeeds, it can blur the line between institutional living and community living. And that would be a very good thing.