Guest Columns

The hidden male: Challenges for men entering and living in a retirement community

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Mike McCann
Mike McCann

Many of the men that we currently work with in our retirement communities are pioneers forging new territory. Men of past generations either did not live long enough, could not afford, or did not embrace the opportunity to reside in a retirement community. There are no models for these men of what it might be like to move into or take advantage of all that is offered in a Continuous Care Retirement community. We have found at Friendship Senior Options the same challenges for our male residents and male prospects. You can however, make this challenge into a dynamic opportunity to create a resounding impact to the men living in your community.

During a recent men's gathering, a jigsaw puzzle was used as a template for our life. One piece was purposely left out. As the men were invited to reflect on their lives and their current situations, they were asked, “What piece of the puzzle could you have been offered to better equip you for today?” Every one of the men stated in some fashion that they wish their fathers, grandfathers or mentors had been more open with them about the challenges or aging, loss and retirement. Each man felt that they were forging their own path and had few models to follow for retirement. We believe this will change in the next generation as retirement communities strive to present options for continued growth and socialization.

Connected to this is the challenge of not always having life go as one has planned. There is probably an advantage to moving into a retirement community as a couple – men can find support in the fact that they are not facing the transition to a retirement community alone. There is more isolation in the retired male population with men who have lost their spouse. These men face the transition and potential isolation because the carry a burden of “this is not the way it was planned.” These men in the community say, “I wish my wife had the opportunity to experience this.” It is a kind of survivor's guilt that can hinder a man from fully embracing the lifestyle offered in a community like ours. Again, there is no model for this. Intentional planning of events with an eye for the inclusion of the single male is very important to making these men feel welcome, as well as times to gather just the men of the community to develop friendship and support. A widowed man living in a retirement community can often pass up social opportunities offered to them, feeling that they should not attend alone, or that they should not be enjoying themselves. Opportunities to process male grief and loss, helping these men to move beyond their isolation can invite them to see life in a new perspective.

Entering a retirement community can have the social stigma of giving up or winding down the male journey. This does not need to be so. Marketing and programming that embraces the retired male should focus on what still lies ahead on the journey. What do these men still wish to accomplish and how can the community make this a reality? The retirement community cannot be seen as a roadblock in the retired man's life, but as a place of freedom to explore and achieve some of the things that life has not yet allowed. There is great achievement energy on the male journey. We are hardwired to explore, hunt and continue to grow. A good retirement community should offer male residents an opportunity to grow and explore. It should nurture the Warrior and Magician male archetypes.  Programming should reflect challenges to be overcome and landscapes still to explore. If we miss this aspect of connecting with the men of our community we do a great injustice to way most men expect to live out their lives.

American men are living longer. In fact, according to Ali Mokdad, Ph.D., professor of global health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, “men are catching up” to women in the United States. Between 1989 and 2009, life expectancy for U.S. males grew by 4.6 years between 1989 and 2009; narrowing the life-expectancy gap between men and women to just over 5 years.

As we peer into retirement communities across the country, women typically outnumber male residents by approximately a 4 to 1 ratio. While the life-expectancy gap is shrinking, a large seismic demographic shift is not expected anytime soon within these communities. However, the change is large enough and the data substantial enough to make retirement communities take notice. Are they doing enough with their marketing initiatives and efforts to attract the appropriate male audience?

Before a community is able to welcome a new resident, they first must attract prospects. For decades, marketing initiatives were focused primarily, sometimes exclusively to women. Newspaper ads featured plenty of images of women enjoying a meal together, gardening or participating in some other pastime geared to females. Events such as tea parties, ice cream socials and more were held to appeal to the female prospect. Font type and colors selected for advertisements and invitations to events were designed with the woman in mind. Even model apartments featured floral décor and walls painted in soft, pastel colors.

Achieving and retaining high occupancy is the goal of every community. This task is a challenging one made even more difficult when we ignore a certain segment of the population.

The increase in male longevity presents a real opportunity for communities to change marketing tactics and initiatives that will appeal to and target the male prospect. Refresh your model apartments to make them more gender neutral, re-examine your ad campaigns to include men and host an event or two tailored specifically for men.

It is important for the Marketing and Sales Department to work in conjunction with the Life Enrichment Department. Programming offered to the male residents can often be leveraged and utilized when attracting male prospects as well.

When we talk about male programming we seem to immediately think of traditional activities that "men" would like to do. Watch football games, use tools, BBQ, etc. Since most of our traditional life enrichment and activity teams are staffed by a majority of females, a community may have activity offerings that are few and far between appealing to men. How many men really would like to sit in a flower arranging class? If it's the only choice for something to do, they may join, but it may not present something they want to do, just something to do.

A problem we all face due to a lack of resources of staff and funds is the ability to create multiple programs that meet every need of every group and sub-group of resident we have. So we need to be creative.

So how do you start? A great starting point is adapting your activity assessments. Can you do a population profile that can give you data of the men to women ratios? Then you can look at your offerings to see the percentage of women only or women interest programs to men's. 

Another great starting point is developing a men's only group. They can meet for coffee, talk sports, go on outings and volunteer in community outreach together. Let them take the leadership on developing the culture they would like to see on campus. When we think of therapeutic environments, is there a space you can develop into a "man cave" for guys to hang out, watch the game and talk freely?

When we talk about the development of children, we find that it's important for boys and girls to have role models and parents of both sexes to grow and live well. I don't think these change at any age. In all aspects of life, it's important to have teammates, mentors and interactions of both sexes. If your activity team is short on male staff, this could be a great way to break down silos and have male staff from other departments involved in the life enrichment programs. Not only will this give your male and female residents variety and a variety of mentors, but also helps that staff person connect with residents in an entirely different fashion.

In our society there are many stereotypes of men, from the brawny man, to the macho man, and even the overly sensitive one. We had the opportunity to sit down with a male resident to hear about their experiences look at, moving into and experiencing a retirement community. His story was that of a single male with children close by. He shared with us that the decision to move was really something that was made by his family, not so much by him. This is a typical answer in many cases. The resident shared with us that when considering different options he never really thought about how many men lived at a certain place, or whether there would be programming for him.

It turned out the community he chose happen do have resources and programs dedicated to men. From a weekly gathering of men around the breakfast table to a program designed at help men succeed in their retirement, there were many options for him. He continues to succeed because he helped invest in the men in the community and tried to involve others. He brought a greater awareness to other men around. It is and has been instrumental to the success of male residents. Including the new one and making them feel welcome. Often time's male oriented programming can offer an escape from someone who acts as a caregiver, or a male resident who just needs to vent off some steam. Just like the kind of things that take place outside of the walls of your community happen, those things, to an extent need to happen in your community. 

Moving into a retirement community is a life changing decision; it impacts a big part of the life of the resident and their family. There are many important factors to take into account when making that choice. Considering male programming and male oriented aspects, might not be at the top of the list. But it is something that everyone should consider. In parting words, the male resident shared with us, the thought to really make the best with what you have. He was fortunate to have some great male oriented programming and spaces. Not all males might be that lucky, but if they band together, they too can enjoy their experiences.

Michael McCann, M.S., is the director of lifestyles at Friendship Senior Options. 

Rev. Dr. Shawn Kafader, D. Min., LCPC, is the chaplain at Friendship Senior Options. 

Jeff Rose, MBA, pictured left, is the lifestyles manager at Friendship Senior Options.

Dean Dellaria is the director of sales at Friendship Senior Options.

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