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Will the Pandemic Spell the End of Big Box Senior Living?

Category: Retirement Real Estate

July 29, 2020 — The types of living options available to people of retirement age have expanded tremendously in the last 50 years. But one type that has not changed much is the nursing home, the site of so many coronavirus infections. Sometimes disparagingly referred to as “big box” enterprises because they can be large and impersonal, even nursing homes might be about to experience a sea change, thanks to the combined impact of the Covid 19 pandemic and an aging baby boomer population.

Boomers want to do things their way, and that doesn’t mean being forced into a nursing home if they can help it. But an even longer nail in the coffin for nursing homes might be what the coronavirus does to them. Seeing the deadly germ spread like wildfire through nursing homes and assisted living facilities has made the danger of having a large number of a vulnerable population clustered together all too clear. Stories of residents left to die alone, separated from their loved ones, have been devastating.

The long time vision of Dr. Bill Thomas, a physician who is a pioneer at disrupting agism and re-imagining how older people live, now has particular relevance. He is the founder of the Eden Alternative, which trains professionals in how to deliver community-based alternatives to long-term housing and care. He is also the inventor of the Minka Building System™, a modular approach to housing that provides compact and customizable homes that are optimized for independence. Built in part by robots, they are extremely modular and adaptable. The Minka home came from his own experience in trying to find care for his medically challenged adult daughter. The name Minka comes from the Japanese, meaning vernacular buildings of various traditional styles. Although they tend to be small and compact, he does not like referring to them as tiny houses. Thomas’s vision is care for elders that is diffused through the community in different places and in different ways, with the customizable Minka homes being a key part of the solution.

Interior of Minka Home

Working with the University of Southern Indiana, Dr. Thomas and his team are developing a community-building model, MAGIC (Multi-Ability, multi-Generational, Inclusive Communities.) The short Youtube video below explains the idea, which relies on the idea of having mixed generations living together as a way to increase stimulation and interaction. It is a return to how we lived before there were nursing homes, generations taking turns caring for one another.

Who knows if the Minka home or MAGIC will succeed in transforming senior living the way Dr. Thomas believes it will. Certainly if it can reduce the size of senior institutions, it might reduce the incidence of mass infections from future pandemics. And it stands to reason it might lead to happier lives for those forced to get assistance in their daily activities, if they get a chance to mix with younger people.

Comments? How do you feel about the idea of living in a nursing home, or having a relative in one? Has it changed since the arrival of the coronavirus? Would you prefer to live in a multigenerational environment if you had to have assistance in your daily living activities? How does the Minka home idea sound to you? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

Posted by Admin on July 29th, 2020


  1. I am intrigued by this concept. I am 66 and getting ready to retire, facing a daunting challenge for what will work for me as a single individual. My mother is 94 and just lost my father, yet lives in their home still. Eventually we will need an alternative option for her. She’s in OH and I am not. I think the idea of multi-generations living together in an affordable environment, is a phenomenal solution to so many things that plague today’s society. Especially now in the face of COVID. I believe COVID took my Dad prematurely as he lay alone in a nursing home waiting on his last day on this earth. I can’t change that, but I do want to be involved anything that can offer an alternative living solution to nursing homes. They are not a happy place…not something to look forward to. We need to honor our elderly. I’d appreciate hearing more. Thank you.

    by R.J. Kincaid — July 29, 2020

  2. What a wonderful and awesome way to live. We treat our elderly with no respect and wonder why our youth are only into themselves and their phones. This is teaching them about living history. I hope these communities allow dogs and cats as well.

    by beth m minasi — July 30, 2020

  3. Love this idea! I had read about the successes of the Eden project previously. For this to succeed, those involved in building need to make a profit..hope that’s been factored in.

    by Jini — July 30, 2020

  4. I love the Eden Project and worked at an Assisted Living that said they followed the practice but they only followed some of it. It is hard to change old Mine sets. A would prefer living in multigenerational complex because as soon as they market something as senior they raise the price. It would cost my husband and I $500 more to live at senior apartments down the street than the apartment we live in.

    by Marge — July 30, 2020

  5. Dr. Thomas’ Minka homes are a wonderful idea. The key is to be able to place these modular homes close to family members. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these small homes could be placed right on the property with a son or daughter of the elder person? If they had a big yard, and the state would exempt the new structure from extra real estate tax because it’s sole purpose is for elder care? That would be awesome. Just sayin’.
    Of course the ideal would be to have mom or dad live in with you. But if the family home has no spare bedroom or full bath on the first level it may be too difficult to care for a parent in your own home.
    At first the family members could take turns assisting the elder and this is usually an enriching and happy experience for all the family. But it gets a bit more complicated when the elder needs 24 hour care. Usually that’s when extra caregivers need to be hired in conjunction with continued care and management from the family members. It takes a village for sure. This can work well too as long as a family member is there coordinating the care – that’s critical. However, when you add COVID to the mix, even if our elders are living in their own nearby Minka home, having them exposed to multiple personal caregivers each day still involves some degree of risk. But life is full of risk and that’s the world we’re living in.

    by Cindy — July 30, 2020

  6. The multi generational has always made sense to me. I’ve never wanted to live in a 55+ comm where all you see are other old people! Lol! You may call that Minka home small but it’s still bigger than I need. But I’m apparently different than most boomers. Constantly reading about retired couples buying 3 and even 4 bedroom homes! For two people why?same as seeing two people moving into a 45′ diesel pusher class a motorhome with 4 slides!!! Just the idea of having to drive something that big would ruin my travels! So how to get Americans to, like me, want to live in small spaces? Next problem. Getting building codes changed. Most cities don’t want small homes. They think that doesn’t make them look prosperous. That’s probably why too many people want mansions. Sometimes I think humans just live to try to impress other humans! Lastly, attitude adjustment about the value of old people. Since the Minka name came from Japanese I will point out the Japanese, and many other cultures, value the old. Here in America it doesn’t seem so. Especially with a government who wants to cut SS and Medicare.
    Forgetting old people for the moment, nothing is going to be affordable if our economy collapses because of this virus, but we can’t try to bring it back by recklessly endangering our environment as big businesses want to do. That is short sighted since earth is our one and only home!

    by Bob — August 1, 2020

  7. Senior living and nursing homes are two different things. Seniors in good health can live anywhere they choose. People who need nursing homes need staff, including medical, 24/7. They are in those big box living situations so that staff can be shared, as are utilities and maintenance cost. If these people, which of could be me if not lucky, were in single homes each individual would need there own caregiver 24/7. Even at the lousy wage of $15 an hour and no benefits that comes to $360 per day or $131,400 per year. Then there are the property maintenance fees, house insurance, property taxes, utilities and food. So while people already have trouble paying the average of $6000 per month or $72,000 per year for a nursing home that is cheap by comparison. So just where is the money going to come from to take care of seniors in such a manner?…..Big box nursing homes are here to stay for the same reason hospitals are crowded.

    by Bob — August 3, 2020

  8. Bob – I agree with both your numbers and your analysis.
    It’s called “economies of scale”?

    by Ann — August 10, 2020

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