Assisted Living Provider Finds Formula for Massive Community Engagement

Senior living providers search far and wide for innovative approaches to accommodate residents. One leader even took his efforts across the pond to Scandinavia to track down best practices—and returned with an idea for senior housing that strongly emphasizes community connections.

The Scandinavian Living Center, a 40-unit standalone assisted living facility located in Newton, Massachusetts, strives to eliminate a sense of isolation that tends to go hand-in-hand with aging to instead bring life and vitality to senior housing. Half of the building is purely common space to draw nearly 2,000 non-residents from the surrounding community through the door each month.

It’s a concept that Executive Director Joe Carella says revolves around several main principles proven successful in Scandinavian countries, yet one stands above the rest: community-centered living.

“You can have a beautiful mansion, the country club atmosphere or the Ritz-Carlton feel, but if you’re isolated, then you become institutionalized,” he tells Senior Housing News.

Establishing Community-Centered Living


Courtesy Scandinavian Living Center

Bringing the concept to fruition was quite the process, though, Carella says, as it stemmed from a three-week trip to Scandinavia that took place about 20 years ago. The Scandinavian Living Center itself opened in 2002, but from there, it took roughly 10 years to get community-centered living underway.

“At first, the bank thought [my idea] was crazy,” Carella says.

Attracting the broader community took some trial and error. A group started to come by to play cards, for example, but at first, the residents wouldn’t join, expressing qualms that moving into assisted living had separated them from the greater community and they therefore didn’t belong. Slowly but surely, those barriers began to crumble, Carella says.


Courtesy Scandinavian Living Center

Now, anywhere between 20 and 30 clubs convene at the Scandinavian Living Center, and residents are more than welcome to participate.

“I knew we were too small to start all these clubs on our own,” Carella says. “We have our own activities like everyone else, but we needed the outside community to come in so that residents could be part of different clubs.”

Another way to get non-residents through the doors was thanks to an outpatient rehab provider renting space in the building. Within the first couple of weeks, a woman brought her son in, and questioned whether it was an appropriate setting for her son. As time went on, the boy started interacting with Scandinavian Living Center residents and establishing relationships with them, squelching the mother’s concerns and furthering Carella’s goals.

“I realized then that you can’t force community connections,” he says. “You have to create organized opportunities and hope the connections occur naturally.”

From there, another group, Newton at Home, set up shop at the Scandinavian Living Center, prompting residents to begin volunteering by making phone calls to the company’s clients in the surrounding neighborhood to check on their wellbeing. And the provider also established the Scandinavian Cultural Center, which includes a performing arts program and has residents and neighbors alike attending shows alongside each other. Additional foot traffic comes from a pop-up cafe each week and a public library.

The flurry of activity at the Scandinavian Living Center tends to prompt move-ins, too, Carella says. In fact, one person visited the center to attend a baptism, and ended up moving in.

Ignoring Age

An integral part of the Scandinavian Living Center’s innovative approach to senior housing relies on maintaining resident’s lifestyles instead of implementing limitations due to age. It’s not that the provider entirely neglects the fact that residents are indeed getting older, Carella says. But they pay attention specifically to the opportunities and dreams that residents might have had since they were born.

“Age might slow them down, but we’re not here to take away their dreams,” Carella says. “When they come to the Scandinavian Living Center, they do so to maintain their lifestyle.”

A 102-year-old resident made phone calls for Newton at Home until she was 105 years old, Carella says. Another resident, at her 90th birthday party at Scandinavian Living Center, looked ahead to how she could continue to help in the political realm rather than reminiscing on years gone by. As it turns out, she ended up giving the mayor of Newton advice before he was elected.


Courtesy Scandinavian Living Center

It’s all about attitude, Carella says, and that spills over to planning programs and outreach overall. For example, a few years back, his colleagues suggested hosting blood pressure clinics, and Carella insisted on other programming that had nothing to do with aging, like a yo-yo show. Eventually that vision came to life, and a show featuring a couple that did a yo-yo performance on “The Late Show With David Letterman” sold out at the facility.

Not only did such an event prove entertaining, but it also brought various generations together, exemplifying the importance of children, elders and everyone in between in the community as a whole, Carella says.

“If it does take a village, why would you separate an important segment of that? Once you pull seniors out, it’s not a village anymore,” he says. “Community-centered living is the most important ingredient. That’s the future of elder housing—of any housing.”

Written by Kourtney Liepelt

Featured Photo Credit: Soldatnytt