E – Seniors: Community Elders Living in Place and Living in TOH (Transit Oriented Housing)

For over 10 years, I participated in numerous San Mateo County based convenings on TOH (transit oriented housing).  This included presentations at the annual Progress Seminar and several Chambers of Commerce forums with international model communities, the latest architect’s models for San Mateo County, and assessment of the range of TOH related community sentiment.

I have shared in the growing understanding of multiple limits resulting from housing spread throughout the suburbs.  We also explored the limits facing seniors living in homes, which may have been long paid for but require increasing expense for utilities and maintenance from a decreasing fixed income.

Seniors face declining health and the loss of spouses. The mobility in today’s society takes children and then grandchildren to distant cities or states.  Neighbors you know move and neighborhoods are increasingly limited in neighborly exchanges.

The answer  TOH – Transit Oriented Housing – the return to village life robust with entertainment and support services.  Remarkably, every single convening left me with one question never addressed in the architectural plan design or in the energetic discussions: the inclusion of congregations in the senior’s new TOH neighborhood.

This is remarkable because the last continuing organizational affiliation of seniors is their congregation.  As they transition to increased service needs – frequent medical visits, prescription pickup, shopping for food and sundries, etc. – their organizational association of record, of history, is their congregation.  Yet, congregations are nowhere in the design of TOH and their ancillary assets.  No one has talked about the feasibility, or lack of feasibility, of congregational engagement within the framework of TOH.

A feasible plan is lacking on two accounts.

  1. The lack of any TOH design concept which incorporates congregation site components.
  2. The lack of any comprehensive collaborative congregational relationship which enables a neighborhood based congregation structure supporting senior engagement.

This is further complicated by the parallel conversation regarding the value of seniors ‘living in place.”   While the place of living may admittedly become more of a challenge, the place of association and multiple modes of resilience is the congregation.  The congregation is multi-generational and programmatically multifaceted: spiritual, community service, educational, fun.  Living in place means being present in a place in which one has a continuity of life, with their known components of customs and people, or their successors.

How many seniors have been heard to say about senior homes or senior centers, “But there are old people there.”  At some level they are saying, “I am not old.”  At some level they are saying, “There are only old people there.”

Congregations are the remaining continuity of relations for vast numbers of seniors, our community elders, where they have lived through the decades of their lives and the life cycles of their family and friends.  While the people may change, sights and sounds, aromas and tastes, music and dance, prayers and rituals, celebration and memorials, remain the same.

Life necessitates that our elders do face transfer to new institutions, often removed from their old neighborhoods.  They are thus more able to be self-sufficient, including getting to doctors, pharmacies, stores, theaters, restaurants and cafés.  The TOH community may well be the next best stop for our elders as they age, or a person of any age seeking to be more economical, more green, more social or for some, at any age, finding themselves more in need of a supportive community.

But not at the loss of one’s congregational community!  The inclusion of their congregational life, their historic congregational life, is a necessity in meaningful, resident oriented TOH.

There are two critical considerations when speaking of any advance for our elders in successfully achieving living in place and the central, non-replicated role of the congregation to that success.

  1. Achieving a 21st century model by which congregations can collaborate in sustaining the support of our elders to extend the time they can remain in their historic home and neighborhood.
  2. Achieving a TOH model by which congregations can share in a sustained partnership to achieve a design of the place of our elder’s congregations when they transition to TOH.

The inability to achieve #1 has already diminished individual congregational success in serving our elders.  These limits are the result of increasing staff and program costs dedicated to senior needs; social and health.  Social service providers face funding reductions and are less able to serve the elders in partnership with multiple congregations, as they are challenged by the number of congregations with elders scattered around the community.

All of this changed in May of 2012, when I was asked to join a team of consultants for the Partners for Livable Communities which convened “City Leaders Institute on Aging in Place.” This Institute included three city/county teams from three states, invited to bring a current senior oriented program to “workshop” with the consulting team. On day one, we heard presentations from the lead from each of the three teams.  Each of the six nationally dispersed consultants shared material from their area of expertise and related data applicable to the projects.

The quality of the team members and consultants was combined with the exceptionally well-designed Partners for Livable Communities Institute format.  This resulted in a first day exchange in which all of us became a mega team, provided with a wealth of information from each specialist and the already well developed context and data from the projects.

It was in this context that the recently constructed final phase of the Peninsula Clergy Network cluster model brought the answer to my 5 year dilemma: how can community elders benefit from the village assets of TOH, without the loss of their congregation assets?

The existing TOH models did not contain the vehicle for the place of congregations’ co-mingled services, worship or social, nor the capacity for architects to envision such a space.

Over the previous 10 years, the innovation of Regional Clergy Engagement (RCE) had created the first methodology capable of engaging all clergy in a region.  Clergy framed mutual partners and advanced their collective place as community partners in exploring, as appropriate and feasible, community issues.

The Regional Clergy Engagement model had recently expanded the ”congregation cluster” component in support the of Office of Emergency Services disaster preparedness, response, recovery.  Congregation clusters now served as a key component for projects in health, education, community service and environment/energy.  Each designated, geographically assigned cluster of congregations connected residents in a group of neighborhoods which include the congregations, schools, library, fire station, recreation center and other community assets.

The structures advanced in this cluster based initiatives resulted the (1) mutual engagement of the congregations, supporting their ongoing collaborative relationship, and (2) the systemic access to “Congregation Based Resources” afforded community institutions within or serving the cluster residents.

This cluster model is now positioned to provide the framework to address the limits to serving vast numbers of community elders, those affiliated congregants and the full scope of neighborhood residents.  The first benefit is the systemic capacity for coordinating service to elders, among congregations and in coordination with city, county and non-profit based community institutions.

The second benefit is the PCN supported interrelationship among congregations to engage in the process of TOH design. This would include shared insights into the essential needs of the congregational affiliation of elders.  It would also include the critical process of congregations and planners mutually examining the nature of the TOH structure and options for innovative modes of shared and/or dedicated space and programs for congregational functions.

The further benefit of the resulting TOH presence of congregations is the enhanced attractiveness of living in TOH for residents of all ages – singles, couples and families.

Rabbi Jay Miller   RELIGION SECTOR 3.0
1.0  On the Town Square         2.0  Walls of Separation
3.0  Alignment: Among Congregations – Within Society

jaymiller@blueconnect.org      650.740.4411