Tupelo, Mississippi, is famous for two things: (Well, one thing, really, Elvis): It is the birthplace of Elvis, and the site of his historic Homecoming Concert of 1956, when a generation of delirious youthful fans celebrated his return from military service in Germany.
It’s a bit ironic, given Tupelo’s place in the pantheon of hip-swiveling youth culture, that the community is now being recognized for pioneering in a new direction, as a leader in the quest to find better assisted living arrangements for the elderly.
Too many older Americans get socked away in impersonal, institutional settings where the care is indifferent or worse (not to mention the food), and life becomes a tedious routine. But in 2003, after searching for five years to find the best ideas for assisted living, Tupelo’s Methodist Senior Services program embraced Green House® homes model, which calls for the small, staffed homes of about 10 persons with private rooms and baths, a “great room,” where people gather and open kitchen where meals are prepared form scratch.
The small house concept eschews the rigid schedules and routines of traditional nursing homes. The residents wake-up when they want to and eat when they want to. The staff works closely with the residents to develop closeness and sense of community.
The concept, developed by Dr. William H. Thomas, employs a radically different approach to staffing—self-directed teams of workers known as “Shahbazim” who prepare the meals, lead activities and do housekeeping in small homes designed to give the elders who live there a sense of community and participation.
An article published in the Journal of American Geriatrics by a University of Minnesota researcher found that that in almost every aspect of care, the Green House® homes did better than traditional nursing homes.
The board of directors of Methodist Senior Services was in the process of raising $3 million to build the new nursing care facility when they heard about the Green House ® idea. To their credit, they had the flexibility to stop the project in its design stage and work with Thomas and a group of architects to build the first of these homes in the U.S.
A recent article in Long-Term Living magazine named Green House® homes one of 10 important senior living design innovations of the last decade. “It’s still a young model, and needs more years of experience to demonstrate continued success, writes the author, Margaret P. Calkins. “A testimony to its radicalism is that a lot of professional caregivers and nursing home administrators still don’t believe it can be done. And yet it is. Ask those who live or are employed in a Green House and they will tell you, in no uncertain terms, that it works.”
Being the first community to embrace the new concept, Tupelo has been visited by observers from across the U.S. and from several foreign countries. There are now about 18 organizations in 13 different states where senior are living in Green House® homes. Tupelo’s role in pioneering this apparently successful model was one of three community projects that helped them win a 2011 All-America City Award. See a video of their community presentation by linking here.
The other thing Tupelo is famous for besides Elvis, at least among civic wonks, is the city’s successful track record in the field of community and economic development. Vaughn Grisham tells the story of Tupelo’s progressive efforts to build the community and crate jobs in his book: Tupelo, the Evolution of a Community. Robert Putnam also makes note of Tupelo in his book on social capital, Bowling Alone. So, it’s not surprising that the city is doing something innovative with senior care.
And maybe it’s even fitting. After all, if Elvis were alive today, he’d be (what?) about 76 years old.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.