Senior Living Takes On Burning Man

Picture this: Tens of thousands of people from around the world gathered in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert as part of a pop-up community for a week during the annual Burning Man festival, an event geared toward art, self-expression and independence.

Now, imagine a camp brimming with people age 80 and older within this temporary metropolis, residing alongside various other generations for the weeklong festivity that has been likened to the millennial’s version of Woodstock.

This is the scene Juniper Communities’ Founder and CEO Lynne Katzmann seeks to set when she ventures west in August with a group of seniors, their loved ones and their grandchildren—all to partake in Burning Man.

“Juniper decided that we wanted to find a good venue to talk about ageism,” she tells Senior Housing News. “What better place to do that than in an intentional community made up of mostly young people who are open to new ideas and equality?”

Juniper Meets Burning Man

The first Burning Man took place in 1986 at a San Francisco beach. Friends Larry Harvey and Jerry James on a whim decided to literally burn a man—an 8-foot wooden iteration of one, at least. The act that drew spectators from up and down the beach. They did so again the next year, and the year after that.

Since those original fires, the height of the man has skyrocketed, the crowd has grown exponentially and the location has changed, but the sense of community fostered from the start remains, according to the event’s founders.

“That was the first spontaneous performance,” Harvey said of the event on the beach during a 1997 speech,. “What we had instantly created was a community.”

Such a communal environment is the ideal space for Juniper to blur generational boundaries, Katzmann says. After listening to a piece on National Public Radio about Burning Man last summer, she says the concept began to take shape.

“We said, ‘Let’s do it, and let’s do it to join the generations,’” she recalls. “I think it’s going to be eye-opening in many ways.”

Combating Ageism

The logistics of Juniper’s plan to bring older Americans to Burning Man 2016 are far from simple, given the care some individuals may require and the festival’s location in the desert, where 100-degree days are the norm.

“It’s very technical to bring older people to the desert, let me put it that way,” Katzmann says. “It’s a big job, but we’re totally committed to it.”

Still, from Aug. 28 to Sept. 5, Juniper intends to join the generations at Burning Man. The provider has launched a website to keep interested parties up-to-date on important information on the event.

Potential participants have the option to register as either an informal guest, meaning they’re interested in joining Juniper’s anti-ageism camp at Burning Man and receiving information about tickets and preparation, but they’ll manage the process on their own; or a sponsored guest, for those who intend to join with Juniper from beginning to end by taking advantage of Juniper’s bulk ticket purchase and being involved in hosting some of the camp’s gatherings and events.

Katzmann says she has no doubt that the payoff will be worth it, first and foremost in terms of striking down negativity surrounding the concept of aging.

“We need to help people understand that aging and dying are two separate things,” she says. “We need people to understand that older people are fully participating in life—and have a lot to add.”

Burning Man is just one avenue to combat ageism, Katzmann says, and it’s an endeavor that can benefit the senior living sector as a whole.

“If people hate aging, they’re going to hate our buildings,” she says. “One of the smartest things we can do as an industry is get rid of the negative perception of aging, because that’s our business.”

Written by Kourtney Liepelt

Photograph by Michael Prados, Burning Man 2011