Betsie Sassen, Vice President of Community Initiatives, Mather LifeWays

“Community engagement” is a popular phrase among senior living providers looking to expand their footprint, improve the marketability of their community, and reach more older adults. However, organizations that want to make forays into outreach to older adults must choose wisely in order to make best use of their resources.

Here at Mather LifeWays, a not-for-profit organization with senior living residences as well as a Community Initiatives area focusing on serving older adults in their communities, we’ve pioneered five unique, replicable channels in which effective outreach can be done:

Bricks & Mortar

Perhaps our best-known form of outreach is the Café Plus concept, which we’ve applied in Mather’s—More Than a Café. The goal was to create unique place for older adults offering a new kind of experience.

The initial draw into the Café Plus experience is through the Café, but the benefit is intended to be much more than food. Anyone, regardless of age, is welcome to eat in the Café; there is nothing in the name or décor that shouts “senior.” The Café is a façade designed to break down stereotypes that surround services for older adults. In the same building, there are spaces with an array of opportunities for those age 50 and better, including lifelong learning, art and music, exercise, and technology classes. This is the real purpose of the Café: to facilitate Repriorment, defined as discovering the joy of new directions, and having the time to focus on the things that matter most to you.

Mather’s—More Than a Café has a proven ability to draw in younger older adults; 45% of the customers are younger than 70. This is important, because this younger crowd supports and represents the vibrant atmosphere of Café Plus, attracting others like them.

Without Walls

A Café Plus doesn’t necessarily need its own address; much can be done to engage older adults in a community without a dedicated building. Mather LifeWays has created a Without Walls model known as Mather Edgewater, which is a low-cost, high-impact model for providing community-dwelling older adults with engaging learning and social programs.

The program’s two staff members work out of donated space in a neighborhood church, and partner with local organizations including other aging services providers, churches and synagogues, senior living communities, and apartment/condominium buildings. With the help of these partners, Mather Edgewater brings programs to the places where older adults gather. These programs include fitness classes, art lectures and classes, movie viewings, book discussions, and computer classes, as well as day trips and other social engagement opportunities.

The cornerstone of the Mather Edgewater program is a monthly luncheon, which draws nearly 400 older adults. The luncheon consists of a catered meal, musical entertainment (with dancing), and information for older adults.

In 2014, Mather LifeWays adapted this model in the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove, IL. Referred to internally as a “Borrowed Walls” model, it’s a private-public partnership between Mather LifeWays and the Village of Morton Grove.

The key to success in both of these programs is strong partner organizations that have a common vision and are willing to share space, staff, and financial resources.

The Village Model

In community outreach terms, a Village is defined as a grassroots membership organization of older adults within a community that offers services, programs, and resources to meet that group’s medical, functional, emotional, social, and/or spiritual needs. Villages exist to support older adults who want to “age in place.” Most are organized by community residents who pay an annual fee to belong; many are incorporated as nonprofits with a volunteer board of directors.

In 2008, North Shore Village in Evanston, IL, approached Mather LifeWays for support. Supporting a Village program could be viewed as competitive to our communities; however, Mather LifeWays realized that it will only serve a small percentage of the older adult population through these senior living communities. So we agreed to support the Village by funding the executive director’s salary, providing office space and support for two staff members, and providing strategic support.

Supporting the local Village holds benefits for Mather LifeWays, including:

  • the potential for increasing awareness of our business

  • a new avenue in which we can engage with older adults who were previously beyond our reach

  • opportunities for innovation in the form of new ideas, programs, and partnerships

  • bolster our reputation as a trusted leader in the community

On the Phone

Organizations can increase community presence and reach even more older adults via telephone programming. Mather LifeWays has developed and implemented one such program, called Telephone Topics.

Telephone Topics is designed to offer free education and socialization via live over-the-phone lectures and discussions of health issues, politics, art, history, etc. We distribute a monthly schedule by mail and other channels, which features a different Topic nearly every weekday. Participants can select the Topics they’d like to join, and dial into a toll-free number. Calls are always live and take place on a leased conference line.

Telephone Topics relies on “technology” that is available to all, to deliver a valuable service to individuals who may have difficulty leaving home, or who are hesitant to come to your location. All calls are free to participants, but the program is sold to other organizations as a subscription, so that they can offer our monthly Topics to the older adults they serve.


A virtual community is a good and sometimes necessary compliment to community outreach avenues, providing a repository of information that can be accessed from anywhere. A website may even be expanded to become an engagement tool, offering access to helpful information and activities such as money matters, health information, and other topics of interest to older adults.

Mather LifeWays offers as a virtual community for older adults. This site provides visitors with resources, information (articles), and connections (message boards). It’s a place for customers to safely explore technology, ask questions, and publish their work. In 2014, the website engaged more than 4,600 unique visitors.

At Mather’s—More Than a Café, we like to say that it all starts with a cup of coffee and from there, the possibilities are endless. The same may be true of your organization’s outreach efforts.  

Betsie Sassen is the Vice President of Community Initiatives of Mather LifeWays.