I recently read a heartwarming article about Three Crowns Park, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC, also called a life plan community) in Evanston, Illinois. It shares how Three Crowns has forged a years-long relationship with the children’s summer sports camp located across the street from the community. Each day, when camp ends, the children are escorted to Three Crowns to enjoy ice cream, alongside the residents, at the community’s restaurant. It’s been an intergenerational program that everyone has enjoyed — residents, campers, and even the community’s staff.

Of course, COVID-19 has forced Three Crowns to rethink how this tradition could continue while keeping residnts safe, so management got creative. This summer, they have permitted the children to converge outdoors, swapping scoops of ice cream for single-serve frozen treats.

While residents must keep their distance to adhere to COVID protocols (children under 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated), residents report they have still relished seeing the children savoring their ice cream and hearing their laughter.

 >> Related: Intergenerational Programs Unite the Young and the Young-at-Heart

Sharing the outdoors

I’ve written before about the many mutual benefits of intergenerational programs, building meaningful friendships between young people and residents of CCRCs or other retirement communities. But this story about Three Crowns opening their ice cream parlor to nearby campers got me thinking: How can other retirement communities reimagine the use of their oftentimes massive square footage, adapting it for the greater community good?

I can picture a number of ways retirement communities could open up their outdoor and indoor space for use by their nearby community, especially as urban and suburban populations grow and space for all kinds of activities is harder to come by.

For instance, retirement communities in the U.S. probably have hundreds of thousands of acres of unused outdoor space that is being held for future development. In some cases, this may be really nice land, possibly sitting on a lakefront or nicely wooded.

Think of all the groups out there that would like to have open land available for events such as small festivals or kids’ carnivals, farmers’ market, outdoor workout groups, outdoor or camping adventures, or even youth sports practices if it’s flat enough. (I know here in Raleigh, some of our youth teams have trouble finding places to practice.)

>> Related: Cultivating Community: How One CCRC Is Tackling the Food Desert Issue

Opening doors makes better use of a CCRC’s indoor spaces

Also consider all of the indoor spaces that get used maybe 25 percent of the average day. With the growing popularity of swimming, why not make a CCRC’s lap pool available to youth swim teams for practices? There are a growing number of personal trainers who do freelance classes that I’m sure would love access to the fitness center a few days a week too.

Or consider that huge multi-purpose room with the stage. Why not open that up for all kinds of community organizations, art exhibits, community fundraisers, or even local theater or music groups? Oftentimes such spaces have dedicated entrances, so members of the public would not even have to come through the front door.

I also think about uses for the conference room and/or library that nearly every CCRC has, which could be an ideal location for smaller meetings. Just this week, I was trying to think of a place where I could hold a meeting for six people.

Especially now, with more remote work, many companies or small start-ups may not have a good conference room to use when needed on occasion. A CCRC’s infrequently used meeting room could be the perfect solution. I also can envision using such a space for tutoring sessions for students, or local clubs that need a nice facility for a small meeting and speaker.

And don’t forget about the community chapel, which sits empty much of the time. Why not open that up for local bible study groups, speakers, or similar religious activities? And a CCRC’s commercial kitchen could be the ideal location for a local chef or restaurant to host cooking classes.

>> Related: Bon Appetit: CCRCs Opening Their Dining Facilities to the Public

Open-door partnerships benefit all

I’m not necessarily suggesting that the host CCRC run any of these community programs the way Three Crowns Park did with the ice cream socials. But I do think there are a number of potential benefits to the retirement community and its residents of opening their doors to their nearby neighbors.

First, such activities could bring new faces and new potential friends onto the campus. Residents might be able to take advantage of speakers brought in by these community groups or enjoy a cultural performance. Just as the Three Crowns ice cream gatherings have forged intergenerational connections between residents and some of the children who have participated in the program, bringing the outside in creates an energy that benefits all parties. The article even notes that some of the children have gone on to volunteer at Three Crowns.

These partnerships with outside groups also could help highlight the advantages of the retirement community among the broader public, which can be extremely valuable. By opening their doors, so to speak, the CCRC or other retirement community has a chance to showcase their facilities and staff, build awareness, and boost their brand. That’s a great marketing opportunity!

Yes, opening up to the public can be a bit more complicated in these COVID times, but looking to the future, the primary objective of this open-door approach is to make better use of all that space for the greater good. The best retirement communities embrace a spirit of altruism and this would be yet another way for the retirement community to give back to its neighbors, while simultaneously creating enjoyable new options and opportunities for residents.

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