The buzz word for facilities that house older adults today is ‘community’. Corporate America has caught on that providing a well-appointed environment is insufficient to foster quality of life. The new trend seems to re-brand themselves as a ‘community’. Let’s look at what that word means.
The word ‘communis’ is a combination of ‘con’ meaning “a being or bringing together, next to or with”, and ‘munus’ which denotes service, duty, obligation. The root of the word indicates ‘a state of being’. In our day, the word often connotes common ownership or responsibility. Does this understanding accurately represent life in present day American long term care facilities?
Most facilities are corporately owned although there is a smattering of non-profit and religious organizations that administer them. Governance through policy, rules, and regulations from a top down authority is the norm. Along with that are measures taken to reduce the possibility of potential liability. These two factors significantly alter the day to day life of everyone connected with a facility. Yet another component, however, comes from residents themselves. They frequently come from disparate ways of life with differing values and beliefs. In short, there is much that mitigates against the current facility actually being a community.
Communis is rooted in some belief, quality, intent, need, etc. that is shared. The only real thing shared by residents and staff in a facility is the fact of aging bodies and minds. Spirit rarely makes it on the radar.
Is it possible for a facility to become a community, or at least foster some ingredients of a community? I think the answer is yes, it is possible. Quaker and L’Arche communities have the best model. It starts with simplicity, and it fosters connection between people and with the earth. It requires a mindset of service between all those involved.. staff, elders, volunteers, friends, family, other professionals. There is the recognition that relationship, in all its many guises, is the key to fullness of life. When such an intentional approach provides the philosophical bedrock of a facility, it can legitimately call itself a communis. The specifics of how that looks, is unique to each individual community.
Those looking for community in old age will do well to look beyond the branding of a facility to assure that substance, equality, respect and the values of communis are actively pursued.