An Interview with Amir Kia: Ideas on Beauty & Affordability in Senior Housing

One of the people I interviewed for this project is Amir Kia, who serves on the Board of Directors for my graduate school – Starr King School for the Ministry. Amir Kia is one of the principal owners for Spirit Living Group, a company that acquires and runs senior living facilities throughout California.

Photo E Principals Page Amir

Amir came to the field of senior housing from the ground up. When first working at a small six bed board and care facility in the Richmond district of San Francisco, he was was struck by the big difference between the way elders are cared for in the US versus in his home country of Iran, where elders are the center of the family and where he had been raised by his grandparents. He felt like there could be a big shift in the US, so he combined forces with his brothers and went out to the community and got involved with more hands on care, as well as doing assessments of other facilities. “It became clear that there was so much room to be creative and make to a difference.” Although Kia’s senior housing facilities are all private pay at this point, there are some key concepts around the environmental design that he brings to the conversation that I also feel are essential.

 Spirit Living Groups’ mission statement has some bold and radically-stated ideas that I find liberating to see named as core values: 

 The mission of Spirit Living Group is to build community, value and beauty. The Company is guided by values of Self-Expression, Presence, Intuition, Relationship, Initiative, and Trust.”

 Although SLG’s communities are all private pay at this point, Kia would also love to see them handle a diverse population – specifically people with few financial resources. “The biggest challenge to senior housing and care is affordability. Amir sees that this will have to be dealt with inevitably. “It’s going to require partnership with community resources and agencies to make it happen.”

San Francisco’s “Patch” Program

Kia tells of a successful pilot program with San Francisco’s Department of Public Health to provide housing for the most impacted low income residents. “At Hayes Valley Care we set up a pilot program with Health Services where we took the most high risk elders who were typically placed in locked facilities for lack of better placement, seniors who hadn’t received the attention for proper diagnosis and treatment and had been medicated with psychotropic drugs. We took them and placed them in our community with the interns and the staff and were really able to bring them to life again.”

 These people receive a ranking with the city, and those who used the most amount of city resources were brought to the Hayes Valley community. They received their SSI of around $700 as well as a “patch” payment from the city that helped to cover their costs at the community. The patch was less money than what the city would have spent with other city-run services, so in the end it was a cost-saving plan for the city. At one point they had maybe 15-16 people. “Some of the most memorable moments I have had have been with these people…. From the moment they walk in and see how beautiful the place is, they realize that they are being cared for. There is an energy of the space caring for you, so you begin to see yourself differently and begin to take care for yourself as well. I saw people come to life over and over again.”

The DPH program started in 2000 and continues today with many senior housing communities. Eventually, budget shortfalls made it hard for Hayes Valley to compete with other senior housing projects using the patch program where their patch cost was lower for the city. Hayes Valley would have had to cut other programming to supplement the patch program. They realized that they could no longer continue in a competitive way.

Architectural Features

I asked Amir what were his dream components that he envisions for the physical space of a senior community. His list is inviting:

 Light and space are core, where you walk into a space and immediately you feel the spaciousness and the openness  – and the joy and energy that comes from light.

 Floor to ceiling windows allow you to look out into a garden as well as bring in the light

 High ceilings

 Activities areas that are connected to common spaces – i.e. being able to see into the wellness center or art studio.

 Public cafes in the building.

 Playful colors, inviting again the open feeling.

 Flooring would be radiant floor heating – good for their feet.

 • Not long, boring hallways, but niches with art and color.

 • In memory care areas having kitchens and activities areas completely open so when the resident comes out of their room they want to come out and engage.

 [This interview was held November 7, 2012]

 Home Page Picture 3 Bayside Park

Richard Louv’s Nature-Deficit Disorder

When I told Montessori teacher Emily Zola about my idea for an intergenerational care community that would feature engagement with natural life as a key element, she insisted that I read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

“The children and nature movement is fueled by this fundamental idea: the child in nature is an endangered species, and the health of children and the health of the Earth are inseparable.”

-Richard Louv

This book presents a compelling and pressing argument about the shift that is happening in our children as a result of societal changes such as our obsession with media technology and a litigious mania to the degree that Girl scouts can no longer climb trees at camp. He discusses at length the growing studies that point to correlations between improvement in child health issues such as ADHD, obesity, depression and the engagement in the out of doors.

Stephen and Rachel Kaplan have done numerous studies in what they call “attention-restoration theory” such as a nine year study of participants in wilderness retreat programs. It’s not surprising that they discovered that the subjects reported “experiencing a sense of peace and an ability to think more clearly”. More interestingly, they began to find that “just being in nature was more restorative than the physically challenging activities.” In other words, they were finding that having all of our activities structured and challenging leads to “directed-attention fatigue which leads to impulsive behavior, agitation, irritation, and an inability to concentrate.” In our helicopter age of parenting, we need to learn to back off, or as Louv quotes Deborah Churchman, associate editor for the children’s magazine Ranger Rick:

“Your job isn’t to hit them with another Fine Educational Opportunity, but to turn them on to what a neat world we live in.”

Of added note, the Kaplans found in a survey of twelve hundred corporations that “those with a window view of trees, bushes or large lawns experienced significantly less frustration and more work than enthusiasm than those employees without such a view.”

Just being outside with free time to play and explore and imagine is key to the developing mind and spirit and body of a child. This is how a child develops their own intimate connection with the earth and its creations. By contrast, Louv talks about how school education curriculum on nature is increasingly geared now towards catastrophic problems of the environment, to the degree that children are numbing to nature. This phenomenon is developed by David Sobel who terms it “ecophobia”.

Lacking direct experience with nature, children begin to associate it with fear and apocalypse. He (Sobel) offers this analogy of dissociation: In response to physical and sexual abuse, children learn to cut themselves off from pain. Emotionally, they turn off. ‘ My fear is that our environmentally correct curriculum ends up distancing children from, rather than connecting them with, the natural world. The natural world is being abused and they just don’t want to have to deal with it.”

The garden and outdoor areas of the Mister Woods Intergenerational Care Community will have space to play and get muddy and sit quietly next to a bed of comfrey or climb a tree (waivers!) It won’t be asphalt and perfectly groomed beds of annuals. Louv says that even an empty, scruffy lot on a city block can be a place for a deep encounter with nature. The key is to have the experience be of the child’s own encounter, imagination and creation.

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“Soft Fascinations”

From a New York Times article (1/31/10)…

“Imperiled Environment Creates an Imperiled Mind”

“SUPPORT FOR ecopsychology’s premise that an imperiled environment creates an imperiled mind can be found in more established branches of psychology. In a recent study, Marc Berman, a researcher in cognitive psychology and industrial engineering at the University of Michigan, assigned 38 students to take a nearly three-mile walk — half in the Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor and half along a busy street. His purpose was to validate attention-restoration theory (A.R.T.), a 20-year-old idea that posits a stark difference in the ability of natural and urban settings to improve cognition. Nature, A.R.T. holds, increases focus and memory because it is filled with “soft fascinations” (rustling trees, bubbling water) that give those high-level functions the leisure to replenish, whereas urban life is filled with harsh stimuli (car horns, billboards) that can cause a kind of cognitive overload. In Berman’s study, the nature-walkers showed a dramatic improvement while the city-walkers did not, demonstrating nature’s significant restorative effects on cognition.”