Tim Carpenter is engaging residents of senior apartments in purposeful, creative projects that stretch their imaginations, nourish their well-being, and enrich their communities.
The New Idea
By providing life-enhancing programs to low and moderate-income seniors living in affordable apartment communities, Tim is transforming aging into a new beginning. He founded EngAGE: The Art of Active Aging to provide older adults with opportunities for community engagement through programs that nourish mind, body, and spirit. Tim views housing for senior adults as more than shelter, but as communities of people with the potential to grow, thrive, and contribute their talents and experience to society. He imagined a new system of senior housing built first and foremost on respect and appreciation for the interests and preferences of each individual tenant. Based on this vision, he created a new model of affordable housing that fosters successful aging and promotes physical and mental health. Beyond that, EngAGE offers the support and encouragement older individuals need to pursue their dreams, express their views, expand their intellectual and creative abilities, and live full, rich lives. Tim aims to set a new standard in the field through programs that promote wellness, lifelong learning, artistic exploration and expression, and civic “EngAGEment.” Tim knows that every day you delay the progression of aging, you reap a huge savings in human potential and the cost of caring for frail elderly. From his experience in the real estate field, Tim also understands that developers vying for lucrative contracts to build and operate low-income housing for seniors gain a competitive advantage by offering housing plus support services. He joined forces with senior housing developers to integrate a bold new “active aging” program into the design of these properties. Tim says they “got it right” when Meta Housing built the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, which was his brainchild and which was recognized by the New York Times as a new direction in late-life living. Tim realized his vision in this apartment building, which he “front-loaded” by attracting many of the initial tenants from local arts organizations. Residents enjoy outdoor performance areas, a theater and screening room, digital filmmaking equipment, drama classes, a read-aloud library, an art gallery and sculpture garden, art studios, and classrooms. They not only pursue their own interests in private lessons or college-level classes, but also choose a role that suits them in each of many creative projects. The success of this model has fostered his efforts to create similar communities nationwide.
Most people will require assistance at some point in their lives, and most families will face these issues with their older relatives. Many elders are unable or unwilling to live completely independently but do not need the level of care offered in a nursing home or similar facility. The pool of those in need of services is growing as Americans are living longer. According to the census, the number of people age 85 or older is expected to double from 3 million in 1990 to 6 million by 2010, and to double again by 2040. Keeping the independent senior healthier and independent longer is vital, from both a social and economic perspective. The average cost of an affordable apartment unit is approximately $500 per month, while the average cost of an assisted living unit, for which there is no current housing subsidy, is over $3,500 per month without supportive services. The additional cost must be subsidized by Medical/Medicaid and Medicare. Most property owners care more about profit margins than the quality of residents’ lives. For seniors, moving to assisted living marks a sharp decline in quality of life. Most of these facilities and nursing homes are isolated communities of loneliness and dependence.
The ability to be independent and in charge helps one to define one’s quality of life. Yet program activities offered in independent or assisted living facilities tend to insult the intelligence and underestimate the abilities of the residents. In Beyond 50.03: A Report to the Nation on Independent Living and Disability, the American Association of Retired People (AARP) found that: “People age fifty and older…clearly are not satisfied with the current limited range of independent living options. The desire for more and better choices may be driven, in part, by higher educational levels and more diversity in today’s older population.” Movies, Bingo, and kindergarten-level arts and crafts are standard fare at senior living facilities. In these settings, a focus on quality of life is rare. Yet research confirms that creativity strengthens our morale in later life, contributes to physical health as we age, and enriches relationships. A positive outlook and sense of well-being have a beneficial effect, particularly among older persons.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition proposes “Housing Plus Services” as an umbrella term for the phenomenon of combined housing and service initiatives. The term refers to permanent affordable housing that incorporates services which are provided, preferably, by trained staff for whom service delivery, not property management, is their primary responsibility. The Coalition believes that all people can be valued residents and community members. It calls for programs that strengthen and expand resident participation to improve the community’s capacity to create change. Seniors who participate in intensive, participatory arts and lifelong learning programs report improved health, fewer doctor visits, and less medication usage (The Creativity and Aging Study, George Washington University).
EngAGE is a citizen organization hired by the owners of affordable senior apartment communities to provide a creative approach to healthy aging for thousands of their senior residents in Southern California. Tim’s path-breaking strategy for funding the program gives it stability and latitude that other citizen organizations lack. From the National Endowment for the Arts 10 Best Practices programs, EngAGE is the only one that provides programs where people reside, has a constant, increasing revenue stream, and has both a plan for and track record of substantial growth. Understanding that in California, housing for low and moderate-income seniors is financed through a combination of (very competitive) tax credits, tax-exempt bond financing, and government funding, Tim saw that he could help developers differentiate their bids by providing a program of support services. At the same time, since tax credits are awarded for a minimum 10-year period, EngAGE would gain a stable base of support and tap a financial mechanism within the housing industry that will increase to keep pace with the growing senior population. The strategy worked. Developers pay EngAGE from a line item in their operating budgets. Today, EngAGE programs reduce the number of seniors requiring higher levels of care by 25 percent. This represents a $3,500 per month, per person reduction in cost of care for at least 500 residents, or an annual savings of $18M. The winners are seniors who live in a new, invigorating, and dynamic environment that promotes “the art of active aging.”
EngAGE currently works with three for-profit partners in the Los Angeles area and a collective that is developing projects in the Bronx and upstate New York. Plans call for increasing the budget by 15 percent a year with a larger share of revenue from mixed-income projects, consulting, and start-up income (developers pay a $15 to $20K start-up fee for each project). EngAGE will expand first to cities in states where tax credits and tax-exempt bond financing are available. Tim is working to raise the bar on what is required to qualify for these tax benefits and how developers are held accountable for it. Fees, low-interest loans and federal funding provide 60 percent of the $800,000 annual budget with the balance from fundraising proceeds. By partnering with school districts Tim taps into educational funding without grant writing, and enables EngAGE to offer teachers $32 an hour. EngAGE has developed a national reputation for its quality programs. The organization is teaming up with a multi-state housing citizen organization, Western Community Housing, to develop programs in all their new projects. Graham Espley, WCH president, says EngAGE programs draw people out of their rooms. There are more people congregating and participating in classes and he says you can feel that it’s a more vibrant community.
Trained teachers offer on-site, semester-long courses covering a wide range of subjects. Teachers move from one property to another to make the most efficient use of their talent and expertise. Key staff include a highly experienced team in the areas of geriatrics, healthcare systems, housing, education, arts, fitness, and program management. Each has a distinguished background. For example, VP Maureen Kellen-Taylor holds an M.A. in Expressive Arts Therapy and a PhD in Learning and Change in Human Systems. Tim offers a work environment that allows staff and volunteers to experience no separation between who they are at home and who they are at work. The result is seen in the relaxed, genuine way that residents and staff relate to each other.
EngAGE provides programs to all who live in the communities they serve, not just those who are healthy or already active enough to access the programs. Prior to living in an EngAGE property, only 22 percent participated in activities; almost 80 percent participate today. With a median income of $10,800 and median age of 72, residents are individuals who had struggled to choose between buying food or medicine. Only 16 percent are employed. EngAGE works to create safe communities in which seniors can develop and maintain social support networks and relationships. And it helps the residents in each of their properties become an integral part of the surrounding community, including schools, businesses, and local government. Residents invite the community to enjoy their offerings, which include senior Olympics, old-time radio shows, and live variety shows.
Tim describes himself as “anti-generational.” Residents act as sages and mentors to younger generations. The Burbank property is next to a kindergarten and near an elementary school. Through a partnership with the schools, the residents tutor fourth grade students. When one boy realized his tutor had served as a pilot in WWII, he couldn’t wait for his friends to meet this “real life hero.” Tim’s latest innovation is a mixed-age development in Long Beach that will include a foster care emancipation component. Not eligible for the senior housing tax credits, Tim found a funding solution by partnering with a university which will house an extension program on the building’s first floor. To reach people from all economic levels, EngAGE has expanded from 100 percent affordable properties into mixed-income and market-rate housing (a more lucrative market segment). The IRS definition of a charitable cause has changed from low-income seniors to all seniors, so EngAGE can serve people at all income levels.
EngAGE also produces a weekly radio show, Experience Talks, which reaches 350,000 listeners and highlights the lives, experiences, and stories of Boomers and beyond. The show airs weekly on Pacifica, KPFK-FM 90.7, and streams live at http://www.kpfk.org. Partners like Sherry Lansing, Arianna Huffington, and Marc Freedman (who views it as “the preemininent show on aging”) are working with Tim to get the show syndicated. Unlike shows that offer advice for older adults on Medicare and such, Tim’s show invites guests to share their stories so that listeners gain insights into ways to shape the next chapter in their lives.
Tim grew up in a small town in upstate New York in a “Norman Rockwell” setting: A dead end street with a baseball diamond and apple orchard. He grew up in a large, close-knit Irish-Catholic family. Storytelling was important to them—like a “competitive sport.” He did a lot of listening, and in the process, gained respect for elders. The area attracted “hippie artists” because it was near the Yaddo Artists Colony (a gathering place for Norman Mailer, Picasso, James Baldwin, and their ilk). The Colony created a space for interaction among artists working in multiple media. It was based on the premise that this intermingling raises all the art up because the artists gain new perspectives. Tim was instantly attracted to the community, and would sit and watch and listen for hours. It had a power over him.
Tim comes from a family of achievers. He was close to his father, an engineer who designed one of the first nuclear submarines. The family moved to Los Angeles when Tim was in high school. He blossomed during college after developing a close relationship with an English professor who encouraged Tim to pursue journalism because he listened well, asked probing questions, and was innately curious. He transferred to San Francisco State where he graduated in journalism, and then got a job as a fact checker at San Francisco magazine, became a reporter, and later taught writing for radio and TV. Writing and teaching remain an important part of his life.
As marketing director for a health care company, Tim focused on senior health care. He saw that independent living properties for seniors offered residents meager and unimaginative activities. At the time there were thousands of these agencies housing 50 to 350 seniors each, and demand was growing. He sought to revitalize housing for low-income seniors by engaging residents in content-rich, professionally led programs. In the 1990s he met a like-minded developer of independent senior housing and envisioned a way forward. In 1998 he founded EngAGE to build robust wellness, civic engagement, and intergenerational programs in which older adults can thrive. Today he helps individuals “see themselves” in new ways. For example, at 64, Suzanne Knode had never written anything creative. But she knew about being an older woman. She wrote a script as a class assignment that her fellow residents at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony transformed into Bandida, a short film that aired on Showtime. What Tim’s English professor did for him, he is doing for thousands of people who are no longer “invisible.” Suzanne says, “Now, all over again, the whole world is open to me.”