4sum is the working name for an approach to senior living that we've been talking about for few weeks now, and would like to explore in more detail. It's a concept that involves communal living with shared services and support staff, but at a micro-scale. Matthias Hollwich first proposed the idea to me during our conversation, based on the work of one of his colleagues, with the idea being to move beyond the trauma-driven downscaling that is the default model now. We now that most people would prefer to stay in their homes as they age - this idea makes the home something that is fundamentally more senior friendly than today's single family dwellings. This post builds on that with some of the brainstorming that has happened since then, most notably with Emily during the Florida trip. This is one of the many ideas and concepts that came out of that trip that we'll be introducing in future blog posts.
Few images are more evocative about the problems of aging alone than "I've fallen and can't get up!". Stranded and immobile, the helpless senior lies there motionless and incapable, with only sophisticated and expensive technology standing between them and an (offscreen) lonely demise. And while it is great to have technology help out, and wireless connections with call-centers around the world are a triumph of engineering and technology, sometimes a simpler alternative can do the trick; other people. Enter 4sum.
4 couples living together in a unit with shared amenities...
The idea at the core is a communal house or flat with four separate living units. 4 units seems like the optimal number, given that one conversation around a dinner table for 8 is manageable. In the unit there are four self-contained units attached to shared living and dining areas. The idea is that people have their own space to sleep, bathe and relax/study, but have the option of regular social interaction over meals or at other times. However good technology becomes it will be a while, if ever, before it can take the place of real people. As people live longer, it stands to reason that they will be living alone for longer too, and having other people around to interact with, and help each other out on basic tasks, such as fixing stuff, sewing, reading the fine print or playing games.
...the most important of which is a professional care-taker
The key thing here is that there's a fifth unit, for the live in care provider. That can be just a student to help around the house if everyone is fit and healthy, or a progressively more advanced standard of care as the needs evolve. There is likely not a fully-featured medical facility, but a primary care triage approach.
A modular unit that can scale to hundreds or thousands if necessary
One of the venture firms I've been speaking with has been asked by a foreign government to assist in putting together a green-field retirement village for 40,000 people. This kind of scale is unimaginable compared to most US-based communities, which don't often go above 1000, and would require a large measure of self-management in order not to result in logistical chaos. Think of atoms, or a beehive.
Base it near a university
Emily's particularly good idea was to locate this near a university, so that it would provide employment and accommodation to the university students and maintain a good mix of young and old interactions, in order to avoid what can be a problem of senior ghettos.
Apparently people are already using a similar model with care facilities for people with disabilities which has proved successful, and is reimbursable by the insurance companies. I'd like to find our more about this. Lots of work still to be done, but if this has a chance to become a new model for innovating senior lifestyles around the world, then it's worth having the conversation. Meanwhile, here are a few obvious challenges and first responses.
Picking the people to share your life with will be hard
"Picking a wife or husband is hard, picking another 6 people to share your life with sounds nigh on impossible". True, but within that hard choice comes shares commitments and bonds that provide the informal services. All parties are incentivized to make it work. It's easier to pick your living mates (a new term would have to be made for this) than your family, and so the answer to this will be, that it will vary. If successful, it will develop into a cultural phenomenon and people will develop mechanisms and processes around picking living mates that may echo some of the pageantry of marriage, and online match making services will proliferate, easy to believe given that today up to 50% of singles use online dating. Meanwhile, there's no reason why people wouldn't move in and out as they do today.
Shared ownership sounds complicated
There seem to be 3 ownership models that could be involved. First, outright ownership of the units among the 4 couples. Second, time-share concepts, that exist in many senior care facilities today, would allow people to own units of the overall facility, while not owning a particular apartment. That would make it easier to move around. And third would be a simple rental model.
Co-incidental service requirements
The challenge here is that 8 people of the same age are living together, all will presumably start off fairly healthy, and as they age will then call for more support at the same time, stressing the shared help
Given that men tend to die earlier, this will be filled with colonies of women
Maybe younger men will find the company of older women appealing, or maybe they'll get along just fine without the guys; the Golden Girls showed us how.
We'd welcome your thoughts.