Chapel Hill News

Aging in community: planning for our future

Tim Carpenter kicked off the “Aging in Community: Planning for Our Future” series with an overview of his experience turning independent retirement communities into creative arts conclaves where senior citizens engage with each other and showcase their efforts in plays, concerts, art exhibits, feasts from sustainable gardening, and appearances on Experience Talks radio shows.

“In the aging world – art is a pliable word,” Carpenter told a packed room at the Friday Center the evening of Tuesday, February 18. “It doesn’t have to be art as traditionally defined. It is the idea of life-long learning, wellness, the creativity of good food, gardening, even the Portlandia chicken episode.”

His non-profit organization EngAGE, founded in 1999, has helped develop 35 senior housing programs serving 7,000 seniors, mostly in California, Carpenter said, but a few others scattered around the country – one in Minneapolis, Minnesota and another in Portland, Oregon where Carpenter now lives.

The National Center for Creative Aging describes Carpenter’s Burbank, California Senior Arts Colony as ‘one big arts camp’ and as one of three set to ‘revolutionize the retirement home concept.’ An Artist Preference Leasing Policy is used to decide who gets to live there. Burbank has 141 housing units and two, large common warehouse art studios that include classroom spaces and working studios with storage lockers.

“We took bad buildings to create great art programs, college spaces, event spaces, a club music room, library, outdoor performance space, and a theater with high, vaulted ceilings for fine arts,” Carpenter said.

“When art is on the door as an inherent promise, it is amazing the power that has over people,” Carpenter said. “It has changed the resident mix.”

Carpenter said he is thinking now of how to create intergenerational, multi-family communities, including rooms for older artists. He is interested in finding a place or three where families could more easily transition to intentional senior housing communities with art and creativity still being the core physical and intellectual unifying amenity.

He said that the Triangle area would be a good place because of all of the colleges here. Seniors are moving to college towns, he said.

“There is an energy in college towns that attracts people,” he said. “You can just feel it and smell it in the air. That’s why the 10 Best Places to Retire in America are all college towns.”

For transforming low-income senior housing communities into places of lifelong learning, creativity and wellness, Carpenter won the 2011 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award. EngAge saves $18 million every year in long-term care costs by keeping seniors living independently, according to the 2011 James Irvin Foundation Leadership Award information about Carpenter.

According to the Irvine website, the EngAGE business model gets most of its money from developers, which is “unusually self-sustaining.” EngAGE encourages developers, who compete for low-income federal tax credits that subsidize senior residence projects, to use EngAGE’s high-quality, college-style arts, community building and wellness programs as part of the social services programs required to qualify a senior housing project for low-income federal tax credits.

EngAGE brings these college-style programs to the senior apartment communities to mitigate transportation and program costs, which Carpenter says are the primary barriers to senior participation.

“We hire adjunct professors and artists to teach at the senior housing communities’ conference centers or multi-purpose rooms,” Carpenter said.

Two more differences between what EngAge offers and what seniors could accomplish by taking classes on their own, are the culminating event of each semester class, wherein the seniors showcase their works and the connection between seniors and teachers – wherein the seniors’ lifelong experiences are integral to the teacher/students relationship.“Our seniors often become mentors to each other and to others in the greater communities around them,” Carpenter said.

Another tenet of EngAge is to avoid providing the next level of care.

“We offer no transition to higher-level care, but we do have someone designated who can help those who can no longer live independently find places that offer higher-level care,” Carpenter said.

For example, Carpenter said, for EngAGE independent retirement communities in California, it is sometimes the county’s Affordable Housing office that can hook up residents living independently with institutions that already exist to provide higher-level care or find affordable housing for those who can no longer afford to live independently in a market-rate residence.

On how to create Affordable senior units, Carpenter recommends those who want to form an intentional community to start at market rate and get that model approved through the local and state governmental bodies and civic organizations; “then the public acceptance will come and you can build toward providing Affordable units,” he said.Carpenter encourages groups wanting to start an intentional community to partner with larger, mixed-use developments or build it solo; because in large urban areas, the trend is all mixed use, he said. The second phase of Carpenter’s Long Beach Arts Retirement Community will have retail on the main floor and be near transportation – a bus station will be across the street, he said.

During the Tuesday seminar, Carpenter pointed to a couple of local organizations that are either bringing or thinking about how to incorporate senior housing into mixed-use building projects. These included Charles House Association, which is building its second assisted-living eldercare home at Winmore (the first is at Heritage Hills); and Montgomery Development, which is in the beginning stages of thinking about how or if having some independent senior condominiums or apartments in a mixed-use project adjacent to Briar Chapel would be possible.

Unlike Heritage Hills which is near shopping and schools, Winmore has both an early-learning school for children in the neighborhood itself and a “town center” – Phillips Square – a mixed-use space with retail and commercial on the buildings’ main floor and condominium living on the second. Charles House-Winmore is located a couple of blocks away from Phillips Square and already has a waiting list, according to Paul Klever, executive director of the Charles House Association.

During the Tuesday seminar, several local people asked how to bring intentional communities to the Triangle. Several wanted to know about building senior housing that included transitioning seamlessly to assisted living and skilled nursing care. Other locals wanted to know about communities whose central unifying theme could be gardening, tinkering in woodworking or mechanic’s garages or contra dancing to traditional music, which require different spaces than more traditional senior communities.

“We are really asking how to engage seniors in life-long learning – developing and sharing their talents,” Carpenter said. “Our mission is independent housing communities where art and creativity are at the core because studies are showing that such living arrangements extend independence and reduce morbidity.”

Carpenter can be contacted through