Betsie Sassen, Vice President of Community Initiatives, Mather LifeWays

What has your organization done for the town or city it calls home?

Regardless of whether a senior living provider has a mission that includes serving older adults beyond its walls, investing expertise in serving older adults in the greater community is an excellent way to expand your footprint, improve the marketability of your organization, and reach more older adults. At Mather LifeWays, we do this through a number of programs and locations — but then again, our community-based initiatives comprise just one of our areas of service.

Effective community outreach to older adults can be done on a much smaller scale, with minimal investment and resources. A perfect example of this is my friends from Clark-Lindsey, a not-for-profit Life Plan Community in Urbana, Illinois, whose outreach program blossomed in just one year. Let me share their success story:

CEO Deb Reardanz and community relations coordinator Laura Beyer came up with the idea of creating a unique outreach program from scratch. Deb told me that leadership at Clark-Lindsey recognized that the best thing they could offer local residents was to do their part in making the greater area of Champaign-Urbana a better community. 

“We realized that we had a lot of expertise and support to help older adults age happily and continue to live full lives,” she told me. “And we also realized that the quickest impact we could have in this regard would be on social isolation — if we could bring people together, they could form their own support circle or group of friends.”

When Deb and Laura met to discuss how to implement this idea in December 2014, their meeting happened to be a “walk and talk” at a local mall called Lincoln Square. As they talked, they realized that they were inside the perfect location for an outreach program: a small enclosed mall with an interesting collection of shops and businesses that appeal to older adults.

Laura contacted the mall owner and negotiated “borrowing” a free room for a monthly luncheon. “It’s very expensive to rent space for that limited amount of time. You’d be looking for a banquet hall or something like that,” she points out. She also lined up a catering restaurant in the mall to provide the food at a reasonable price.

The monthly themed luncheons, dubbed Ethel & Maude’s Table, began in April 2015, and in the first nine months, attendance has averaged 80 people. Clark-Lindsey is happy with that—Laura points out that attendees use the luncheon as a meeting place for friends; it’s an intimate size with a good feel to the room.

Here is a breakdown of how Ethel & Maud’s works:

Budget: The first nine months were funded by an $8,000 endowment from a former Clark-Lindsey resident. For 2016, Clark-Lindsey allocated $12,000 for the program, which includes new programming in addition to the luncheons.

Staffing: Laura fits planning and oversight of Ethel & Maud’s in with her current position, and relies on 10 hours of another staff person’s time in answering voice mail RSVPs. “Those phone calls are when you connect — that’s when we build those relationships,” she says. A new database will convey personal details that might spark conversation or connections with customers.

The program also relies on volunteers as well as interns, who help out with programming and planning. They learn valuable skills and form connections with the guests. Clark-Lindsey staff members also volunteer to help at the luncheons. Laura says they enjoy it and see it as a perk, and have gotten to know many customers by name.

Marketing: For the first two luncheons, Clark-Lindsey ran a small ad in the local newspaper and sent a mailer to prospect list. After that, Ethel & Maud’s relies solely on word of mouth. Flyers are available at each luncheon to promote the following luncheon, and attendees can take as many as they like to help spread the word.

Expansion: In 2016, Ethel & Maud’s will offer additional programming, based on customer survey responses. An indoor walking group (in the mall, of course) was started, and there are plans to add more wellness programming like trips, lectures, and more. Laura says that nine months into the program, she can already demonstrate the impact and success of the program to attract more partners and more support.

Advice to Others

Interested in considering a similar small-scale outreach program? Laura says her lessons learned include evaluating new and existing community partnerships to determine which ones can help you get off the ground. “We couldn’t have done this so easily without Lincoln Square Mall or the catering restaurant,” she points out.

Deb adds advice on using outreach to promote your senior living community: “It’s important to be careful about not taking a heavy-handed marketing approach with this,” she warns. “We never sell our [senior living] organization at the luncheons — I think people were initially wary of being sold too, and they’re willing to come back because we don’t do that. However, we are sharing who we are and what we do. While our name is known in the community, there’s a lot of misinformation, and this is a way we can educate people.”

Café Plus in Action

Ethel & Maud’s is a “Café Plus”—which is an outreach model created by Mather LifeWays, which we teach other organizations to adapt for themselves. Laura attended one of our 2015 Café Plus workshops, and will be a panelist sharing lessons learned at the next workshop. At these three–day events, we teach attendees that they can provide older adults in their communities with tailored programs (including meals) and resources in a bricks-and-mortar location, or through more creative avenues like Clark-Lindsey found.

Succeeding at outreach is not the logistics of how you do it or how much money you spend; it lies in the experiences you provide community-based older adults, and the benefits they draw from those experiences. So think about what your organization has to offer—and what your older neighbors have to gain.

For more on Café Plus and the next workshop (June 20–22), visit

Betsie Sassen is the vice president of community initiatives at Mather LifeWays.