When LJ Ingram was taking care of her aging parents, she thought about what she and her wife wanted for their future. “We prefer to enjoy our senior years with less worry” and with fewer concerns for their children to shoulder, says Ingram, 69. 

Millions of American families can relate. By 2030, all baby boomers will be over age 65 and 1 in 5 Americans will be considered an older adult, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Not far behind them, the oldest Gen Xers turn 59 this year. And with aging often come decisions about where to live.

Something else is happening, too: “The generation of older adults is growing more diverse,” says Marvell Adams Jr., CEO of the nonprofit Caregiver Action Network and co-founder and CEO of W Lawson Company, a consulting company focused on equity in aging. 

Diversity can mean several things, according to the National Institute on Aging, including:

  • Age
  • Cultural background
  • Cognitive and physical abilities 
  • Education and socioeconomic background
  • Gender identity
  • Language
  • Neurodiversity
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation

But the full range of diversity doesn’t always show up in senior living spaces such as retirement communities, independent living, assisted living, and memory care facilities. “Traditionally, our senior living and aging services infrastructure has been siloed in many ways,” Adams says.

For Ingram, finding a senior living community that would welcome herself and her wife was crucial. Families of other backgrounds also seek culturally inclusive communities. And it’s a demand that the industry has started to address.

For many people, money is one of the biggest barriers to joining a senior living community. The average cost of assisted living in the U.S. is $4,500 per month, or $54,000 annually, according to the National Council on Aging (NCOA). The price tag can range much higher than that, depending on location and services needed. 

“When you get into assisted living and life plan communities where there are levels of care to progress through, there may be an entrance fee and considerable monthly fee, and residents tend to be mostly affluent and White,” Adams says. “If you have the means, you can self-segregate within a similar age group and with individuals that you’re used to being around your entire life.” 

Other things, including health status and cultural preferences, are also involved.

In a study of 5,212 people enrolled in Medicare, Black older adults were less likely to move into assisted living and more likely to go to a nursing home compared to White seniors. That was due in part to finances and health status. But “unmeasured factors related to systemic racism and/or black-white differences in care preferences might help explain our finding,” the researchers wrote in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B.

For some people, it can come down to something as tangible as the food that’s on the menu. 

Senior communities are increasingly working on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) initiatives. These include large and small things that help residents feel more comfortable, says Sarah Kokinos, vice president of community living at Erickson Senior Living, which is based in Baltimore and has locations in 11 states. 

For example, Kokinos says, DEIB measures might include:

  • Expanding the dining menu to include foods that represent residents’ cultural background
  • Creating an inclusive listening culture to give people with a hearing disability the ability to participate socially
  • Hosting educational events where residents share their backgrounds and life stories
  • Adding the Pride flag on marketing materials to signal a commitment to inclusion

“We’re working to create a safe space that allows them to come to our community to be their authentic and true self,” Kokinos says. 

Erickson has set up a Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Council to benefit both employees and residents. In a survey of 60 senior living companies, 40% reported having DEIB programs in place. Most of these organizations focus on diversity in spaces of gender, race and ethnicity, and sexual orientation. 

Culture-centric communities are those that focus on a particular culture, Adams says. Examples include Eben Silver Town, an independent living and personal care home community that serves Korean and American seniors in Suwanee, GA, and the California-based Japanese community J-Sei, a multigenerational and multicultural organization. These residences aren’t set up solely for one group but center on a particular culture in such a way to highlight its customs, food, and language – without excluding others. 

Other diverse senior housing opportunities include multigenerational living models, which aim to connect older adults and families with children so that people of all ages live together. These places include H.O.M.E. in Chicago and Bridge Meadows in Portland, OR. 

Adams is also working on the Historically Black Colleges & Universities Intergenerational Housing Initiative (HBCU IHI), which aims to connect historically Black colleges with older adult communities. Over 100 older adult communities are affiliated with U.S. universities, but none with HBCUs, according to the initiative. “These communities build in the integration that I think needs to exist for our industry to thrive and move into this more diverse world,” Adams says.

As for Ingram and her wife, they chose Riderwood, an Erickson Senior Living Community in Silver Spring, MD – the same place where Ingram’s parents had lived in their later years. “As a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, I’m able to stay true to myself at Riderwood,” Ingram says. “There are several groups on campus that prioritize inclusion and belonging. We feel comfortable to be who we are, knowing everyone is welcome and accepted.” 

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