Baby boomers are rewriting the priorities for aging, including assisted living in Northern Michigan. Cordia at Grand Traverse Commons is listening.

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Tables in cozy nooks, divided by graceful arches, are set for white table-clothed dining along walls of butter-yellow brick in a century-old Grand Traverse Commons building. The scene could be the setting for the James Beard-nominated Trattoria Stella, just a half-mile down the hall. However, these tables are set for independent and assisted living residents of Cordia at Grand Traverse Commons, who get their own sophisticatedly plated meals from a culinary team led by lauded farm-to-table chef Michael Bauer. This dining experience is one box ticked on the list of today’s aging baby boomers’ requirements who want flexibility and out-of-the-box thinking in their dining options as well as in almost every aspect of daily life.

Bauer brings high-end dining to daily changing menus that include options like breaded calamari with sweet chili sauce, panko-crusted goat cheese salad, lamb lollipops and a cinnamon pavlova with blueberry compote. What he and the other chefs don’t bring is institutional experience—and that’s by intention.

“We knew we could train or teach someone about seniors’ dietary needs,” says Cordia Founder and CEO Karen Anderson, “but we wanted someone from the hospitality industry whose personal mission was to make delicious food, beautifully presented, fresh in ingredients and with a lot of rotation of the menu.”

Interesting, nutritious and delicious food—eaten on their own schedules—is just one of the things baby boomers are looking for in their independent and assisted living choices. Add to that beautifully designed spaces, intellectual and physical activities and a community of like-minded people who become friends and with whom they can age. Because, notes Anderson, no one, as we age, wants to wake up and live the same day over and over as if stuck in their own version of the movie “Groundhog Day.”

The biggest revolution in living models for seniors, including at Cordia, has been the addition of radical flexibility, and that goes beyond having both a formal dining room and pub onsite. The one-size-fits-all model has morphed into treating each resident as an individual and helping them to mold what makes an interesting life journey to them.

“When I first entered the industry, you’d look at a program calendar and it’d be no different from the daily activities at a children’s Y camp: art and crafts, Bingo, singalongs. Games, music and art have a place in most people’s lives, but not at a childlike level,” Anderson says.

Cordia residents today shape their days around a host of different activities, all delivered via the iPads each resident is given upon move-in. A weekly menu lets one choose from wellness offerings popular in staving off the effects of age: mindfulness, meditation and fitness and strength-building classes. There are lectures on world history and art, movie nights, open studio time and art classes like “learning to draw stick people for comic relief.” Many baby boomers are passionate about the arts but want to do more than watch them passively. For them, Cordia offers in-house choir and theater groups, resident artists who spin their own yarn in the fiber arts studio and painters and jewelry makers whose work is shared in exhibitions.

Key ingredients also include the benefits of communal living—a shared place where people might even enter before needing assistance. A place like Cordia lets someone enter either the fully independent living section (Club Living) or the assisted living wing (Club Living Plus). Even in independent living, someone could get help from the wellness team of nurses and other professionals on an à la carte basis, while they’d get more regular team help in the “plus” section. Such help might include daily reminders to take medication or something as simple as laundry and cleaning services or dog walking. When a move is needed for health reasons, it can be to the other side of the complex—no need to adjust to a new setting or make new friends.

When Anderson founded Cordia in Boston 25 years ago, she developed a five-pronged approach to wellness focused on keys to a well-rounded life: intellectual activity, physical strength, spiritual connection, cultural enrichment and emotional balance. This philosophy hasn’t changed over the years, but how the elements are delivered to aging boomers certainly has.

The special architecture of the Grand Traverse Commons posed some initial challenges for the Cordia staff—its historical status limited the ability to change the original structure. But it offered a special opportunity as well since aging boomers want their surroundings to be as interesting as their activity and food menus. The building was originally designed as an innovative-for-its-time asylum in the model of an Italianate castle. No two rooms in this community of studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments are alike, and residents share 30,000 square feet of interesting common spaces with breezy porches, decks and entertainment spaces.

As a bonus, the club sits within a couple of walkable blocks of both the region’s main medical center and a thriving residential village boasting a fair-trade coffee shop, bakery, restaurants, boutiques, a brewpub, winery and bocce courts.

“Just because we’ve turned a certain age, it doesn’t mean we want our days to stop being interesting,” Anderson says. Instead, seniors want them to perhaps be even more so. Aging boomers want to stay engaged with life and to surround themselves with others who do so as well and to build deep friendships along the way.

“That age-old litmus test of independence—’I stayed in my home until I came out feet first’—is a strategy many still employ,” Anderson says. “But when people eat meals together, they eat better; when they see their next-door neighbor can ride bicycles and swim, it motivates them to continue to stay fit and keep active. We’ve seen from the beginning that if you could get people in before they needed the help, it could change the trajectory of the aging journey.”

Assisted Living in the Baby Boomer World

Choices. That’s what baby boomers want in living options as they age, as does Gen X behind them, says Jane Marie O’Connor, owner of 55 Plus Marketing and a national consultant in the senior housing field.

While the Silent Generation born between 1926 and 1945 likely wanted meaning and choice, too, they were content with what had been offered. Boomers have other ideas for both living style and location.

“They have disrupted and changed everything they’ve touched in their lifetimes,” O’Connor says. “They were not conformists. So they don’t want to retire and lie back and watch the world go by. There’s a sense of purpose and meaning to their lives, and they want to explore that. They want new adventures, they want socialization.”

Facilities competing for this population have furthered the revolution in senior housing options, offering spots that welcome pets, integrate technology, make wellness an integral part of the day and offer flexibility in both dining times and dining settings. Bistros, cafes and grab-and-go options might better fit a boomer’s active lifestyle, as does mealtime flexibility that doesn’t force someone to head home for dinner in the middle of a pickleball tournament or a stint of reading to local school children.

One newer trend involves the theming of entire complexes. There are communities totally designed for Harley Davidson lovers, boaters, people of a certain religious faith, nature immersion and more. One client, O’Connor says, is developing a wellness community in Mexico that features plantings with aromas that calm or stimulate the mind, Japanese sand gardens and areas in which technology is banned.

“We see people really doing their homework and choosing accordingly,” O’Connor says. “There’s always this common aspect of a meaningful purpose and active lifestyle. Boomers are looking for a new adventure and want to know, ‘What are the things that are really going to excite me?’”

Find this and more articles about life over 55 in Northern Michigan in the free, digital 2021 edition of MyNorth Inspired Life below; or get two issues of Inspired Life in print each year for free when you subscribe to Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine, delivered to your door each month.