For those of us growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, our parents’ generation built a culture around the kitchen table. Mealtimes were a symbol of the health of the family. As our spiritual center of the universe, my mother had decades invested in planning, organizing, shopping, cooking, and finally savoring the magical “ta-da” moments when each meal came together. Mom sacrificed a lot for us, day after day, without a word. While she may have fantasized about having freedom to do other things, she never spoke or acted on them.
For the past 30 years, I’ve had the honor of leading teams dedicated to creating and optimizing magical places mature Americans call home. From solutions to keep people in their homes longer, to assisted living for those wanting the optimal blend of community and care, to centers for those needing professional skilled care to get well and go home as fast as possible.
Mom supported my career over the years with interest. Naturally, we had many conversations about her coming to live in one of our communities. No matter how many benefits I suggested, she lovingly pushed back with the same objection. She would be giving up a kitchen in which to cook a family meal. She’d be giving up an oven in which to bake cookies for grandchildren. She’d in essence be giving up the very culture that she had created, and her identity along with it. It was what made her whole.
The Aha Moment
As an executive in the senior care industry, my inability to convince her impacted me deeply and personally. I moved into one of our communities for months, hoping my fellow residents would lead me to the answers. Finally, after 10 years of trying different angles with Mom, the moment of epiphany came, as I was hearing my own children talk about their wants, goals, aspirations, and dreams. That was it: the dreams. The dreams we all have before life’s responsibilities set in. The dreams of traveling to far-away places, learning new things, and spending days indulging in favorite activities.
So I decided to approach the question differently. I asked Mom one day what she dreamed about when she was very young, before Dad and the rest of us consumed her life. We rolled back the clock 50 years. I asked about what she enjoyed doing with her friends, the places she visited, and things she wanted to accomplish. In essence, what was it that brought her joy—and that she had to put on hold for a while. I learned that she, like many in her generation, gave so much for and to their families that they lost themselves in the line of duty. I don’t think these were conscious decisions. But there is a distinct difference between the person who still believes in dreams and opportunities and the person who accepts the hand they are dealt as their burden.
Ready To Flip The Record
One memory led to another, and before we both knew it, Mom had talked for hours, and together we came to an important conclusion about time.
As we get older, time is no longer a commodity. It is to be prioritized and savored for every moment, not to grieve what is lost but to maximize what is left. Time must be thoughtfully allocated for becoming exactly the person we would like to be. That means rolling the clock back to embrace those young dreams that, moving forward, open a world of possibilities. I learned Mom still held those, and she was ready to flip the record over from the side of duty to the “dream side”—which had always been there, but had just not been played in a long time.
Not long after, Mom moved into a community, after deciding to put dreams first over cooking, shopping, laundry, cleaning, gardening, and many other activities that out of duty and habit had consumed her. She took the liberty to exercise her freedom to be who she imagined she could be. She trusted herself and her judgment. She prioritized possibilities, and today is living them: whether it be playing bridge with friends, enjoying theater, book club, traveling, volunteering, and so much more. She loves the light coming through her windows. She is surrounded by people of the same age who share common interests. She recently shared that she wished she would have made the turn decades ago.
Turning The Tables
And the kitchen? While she insisted on having an apartment with a kitchen, ironically, she has never used it to cook a single meal…or bake one cookie. When she craves an opportunity to cook, she joins the world-class chefs in the kitchen of her community, who welcome her company, in the planning of dining experiences for two to 200.
In the years I’ve been in the senior care industry, I’ve not had a single resident join one of our communities and later leave to gain a kitchen back (or the laundry, cleaning, or shopping, for that matter).
During my months living in assisted living, I learned from my fellow residents how they put egos aside to define a new culture of community—one created on maximizing the possible. I was amazed at how many of them give back their many gifts in schools, as big brothers/big sisters, as caretakers for the homeless, and more. Every day they are making life better for themselves and those they serve. In essence, the kitchen table is now a much bigger one—and still a symbol of the health of the family—made remarkable thanks to the embrace of a community.
Kenneth Lund leads Radiant PS, a congress of experts who help organizations design, execute, and optimize continuum-based models for the new era of health care.