Elderhood in the neighborhood

The Scandinavian generational model enhances the elderly and communities

Scandinavian generational model

Photo: Larrie Wanberg
Preschool kids dance at an assisted-living facility in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Larrie Wanberg
Features Editor

Eight million elderly Americans today are experiencing the continuum of care from retirement homes to independent living, assisted-living, or memory care facilities. The future need for care for those over 80 years is projected, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, to double from 12 million to 24 million by 2035.

Luckily, a growing movement in America is changing the way care is provided to an aging population.

The Scandinavian model

Leading a transition in senior care is a cultural model from Scandinavia, which has long been recognized among nations as the “happiest” among its citizenry.

The Nordic approach to aging integrates personal freedom, lifelong learning, design of stimulating facilities, and most of all including creative and cultural activities. The Scandinavian model, at its core, is a natural progression through the lifecycle.

A shining example of this approach to eldercare is the Scandinavian Living Center (SLC) in Newton, Mass. The program was launched in 2001 by the Scandinavian Charitable Society of Greater Boston, using the philosophy of community-centered living.

By adding stimulating activities that engage mind-body awareness, a sense of vitality is integrated into eldercare, which has obvious benefits—more vital residents are more able to engage in cross-generational activities, integrate with the surrounding community, make choices, and share in an open system of facility governance reflective of a municipal “city council.”

The multiple clubs at the Boston SLC are an example of innovative management. With a mere 40 residents, the center has over 30 active clubs. It only takes three members to form a special-interest club that then builds networks that grow with new interests. The method has proved to be a successful way to increase engagement in activities.

Scandinavian generational model

Photo: Larrie Wanberg
A resident demonstrates her vitality.

Driven to improve aging

Behind the SLC is Joe Carella, Executive Director, and his involvement stems largely from two enlightened moments in his history.

First, when Carella was 17, he tore his ACL and was hospitalized. But the pediatric ward was closed, so the staff boarded him for four days on the geriatric ward. He shared a room with two elderly gentlemen, one with dementia and another despondent awaiting the amputation of both legs.

The long corridor was lined during the day with seniors slumped forward in wheelchairs. Those four days had a profound impact on Carella and inspired him to begin a career in service to better senior living.

Secondly, years later, Carella was on a study tour of Scandinavian eldercare facilities covering over 60 facilities in Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. At one center in southern Norway, he said, “This is it! This is the ideal of senior care.”

Carella has written two books on his findings and his experience operating a senior facility using the Scandinavian approach.

In this latest book, the natural gathering of people from neighboring communities, labeled community-centered living, becomes a solution in deinstitutionalizing the status quo of housing elders that leads to isolation.

Intergenerationality for all

In a survey of 180 intergenerational senior facilities conducted by Generations United and the Eisner Foundation, 97 percent of participating seniors reported feeling “happy, interested, loved, younger, and needed.” 

In intergenerational facilities, students from area schools and colleges interact with local senior facilities to enrich program activities with music, performances, and other entertainment. College courses and non-credit extension classes are offered on site or online for seniors. Music and movement activities are part of daily programming.

For me, as a resident in assisted-living in Santa Barbara, Calif., I benefit from taking three courses on site at Wood Glen Hall (WGH) from the Vitality extension program at the SB Community College—art, music, and mind-body awareness. WGH originated as a three-generational model 70 years ago with an idea “to fashion a domain wherein dwells security, tranquility, and happiness,” according to Adrian Wood, speaking at WGH’s dedication on Nov. 3, 1957.

The flow of energy reaches out into the community too. Assisted-living residents volunteer at the Red Cross, the school district, a cancer society, a library, SBCC, and genealogy and historical societies.

WGH regularly hosts community groups, such as a hearing-loss group, a veterans’ group supporting children with cancer, and several hobby clubs. A project for the visually impaired began this summer, using new tech tools. The facility held a class in “Cued Speech,” a visual language that enables communication between people with and without hearing loss.

Transforming care facilities for the elderly into a community-centered or “village” model, influenced by Scandinavian and other cultures, is changing the places and faces where generations connect and interact.

This article originally appeared in the August 24, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.