Earlier this year, Steve Gurney was filling out an application for a small apartment. One of the things his new landlord wanted to know was which funeral home to contact if he died.

Gurney wasn’t moving into an ordinary apartment — he was going to an assisted-living facility, where the units usually are occupied by older people who aren’t terribly sick but nonetheless need help with day-to-day activities.

Gurney isn’t elderly — he’s 43, married and has two children. He’s in good health.

Earlier this year, Steve Gurney was filling out an application for a small apartment. One of the things his new landlord wanted to know was which funeral home to contact if he died.

Gurney wasn’t moving into an ordinary apartment — he was going to an assisted-living facility, where the units usually are occupied by older people who aren’t terribly sick but nonetheless need help with day-to-day activities.

Gurney isn’t elderly — he’s 43, married and has two children. He’s in good health.

Nonetheless, he was checking into an assisted-living community — though for only a week — to catch a glimpse of the experience that has become such a routine part of life for older people in America. He did it because he had realized there was a huge gap in his knowledge, even though he had made a career of advising families on housing and care arrangements for older Americans.

"I was taking my kids to their first day of school a year ago," Gurney said. "They started asking me about my own first day of school, and I was speaking with authority. I dropped them off and drove to my job," he said.

But the conversation with the kids was a reminder of an inconsistency in his life, he thought.

Gurney is founder and publisher of the "Guide to Retirement Living SourceBook," which compiles extensive data on senior-living communities in several East Coast regions. 

"It occurred to me I was helping all these people make decisions about moving into senior housing, and it seemed odd that I hadn’t experienced it myself," he said. So he decided to walk the walk — at least as far as he could.

In February, he moved for a week into a Maryland assisted-living residence, with no cell phone, no job contact and no family contact. He followed that in August with a week at a Washington continuing-care retirement community, which offers independent living, assisted-living and skilled-nursing services within one campus.

The second time, he brought along his 6-year-old son, Asa.

He hasn’t been the same since, he says.

Galvanized by his interactions with older people and the insights of Asa, Gurney talks excitedly about changing the industry upon which he has built a career. He wants to figure out ways to change the image and to reduce age segregation.

He wants the industry to create communities where older people still get the services and care they need while living among younger people — even among whole families. He’d love to see college students living alongside people who inch along with the aid of walkers.

"One of my goals is to get people to stop thinking that these places are the last places that older people live and to get people to think that this is a place where just people live," said Gurney.

He knows that much of this is blue-skies stuff — that unless some incredible sea change occurs, the cultural segregation will continue, and older adults will continue to fear, often unnecessarily, such institutionalized living arrangements, he said. …CONTINUED

"I talked with my son on video before we moved," Gurney says. "It was very beneficial to view this environment through the eyes of a 6-year-old. I asked him before we moved in, ‘What is a retirement community?’

"He said, in essence, it’s a place for people who are lost," Gurney said. "Midway through our week, he said this is a place where you go to meet other people. He had met more people in those few days than he had met in his whole life.

"I don’t think he viewed them as old at all, until after he spent five days with the residents asking him, ‘Are you having fun with the old people?’ " Gurney said.

"I think the stigma of aging got through to him," he said. "Even the residents themselves, sometimes, passed on this idea of ‘why would a young person want to live with us old people?’ We have this poisonous stigma of aging that’s out there in our culture."

He recorded the experience on a blog, EveryoneIsAging.com. Acknowledging that his first two experiences were in fairly cushy environments, he next aims to spend time in a low-income senior facility, sharing a room with a resident, as is often the case now.

These days, he extols the senior-care industry to build in urban environments, where residents can walk to the groceries and to libraries instead of depending on their facility’s van to transport them on a set schedule. He frequently speaks to seniors and other groups, urging them to think about ways to blend ages in communities.

"I tell them all this stuff," says Gurney, who’s transparently excited by the idea of pushing his own industry to another level, "and then they say, ‘OK, what’s in it for me?’ "

And so, here are some of his more grounded-to-earth suggestions for family members who are weighing assisted-living facilities and the often-stressful transitions for the people they love:

  • When studying an individual community, focus on the people first, then the walls. It’s easy to get caught up in an attractive, new community, but try to focus on the other residents instead, Gurney said. "Ask, ‘Are they like Mom?’ A lot of times a community will have biographies of residents you can look at. Look for common backgrounds, interests and connections," he said.
  • Stay as close to home as possible, he said. "Visiting your parent in their new home should be easy and convenient. If it’s a chore, a 45-minute drive, it won’t be pleasant and it will affect everyone’s moods and lifestyle."
  • Talk to the captain of the ship. If there’s one staff member you should chat with, it’s the executive director or chief administrator, Gurney said. "Their leadership style and values will eventually spill down to every staff member," he said.
  • Don’t just drop Dad off — try to imagine what it’s like to be in Dad’s shoes. Many communities have guest rooms; see if you can spend the first night to help make the initial transition easier, he said.
  • Get involved. Be a part of the community where your parent lives; get to know other residents, families and staff. "There’s a lot of wisdom and history in the walls of these communities — it can be a great learning experience," Gurney said. "When staff sees that you are around the community a lot they will pay more attention to your loved ones."

Mary Umberger is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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