Episode 61

Embracing Spirit: Senior Living With Heart

Amir Kia, co-founder of Spirit Living Group, joins the ONEder Podcast to share his perspective and experience leading a purpose driven senior housing organization dedicated to providing thoughtful care for elders in urban communities. Amir discusses intention and strategies for senior living design and care, from mindfulness training for staff members, utilization of new technologies for safety and wellbeing, to multi-use outdoor features that meet the needs of both older residents and younger visitors. Learn more about thoughtful design, development and management of senior living communities.

Featured on the Show
We're in conversation with the Zen Caregiving Project to implement their mindfulness training program for our staff. The philosophy is that if we can bring mindfulness to ourselves as directors, executive directors and care partners, if we can bring that mindfulness in our own lives we’ll be more present in the lives of others. Amir Kia, Principal at Spirit Living Group


CCB: [00:00:16] Welcome to the ONEder Podcast. This is your host, CCB, and today's conversation is going to be very broad in its application to all of us; and I'm saying that because all of us have the opportunity to grow older, if we're lucky. And American elders today are facing a huge amount of housing challenges as they navigate their later years. You know, we have a rapidly aging population. The latest statistic I saw was 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day. So just imagine what we're going to do to find suitable and affordable housing. The options are becoming increasingly difficult, and there's the struggle to downsize larger homes, find more manageable living spaces. And then there are the financial barriers or the lack of suitable housing in their desired location. So. our guest today, Amir Kia from Spirit Living, is going to help us understand his approach to supporting this seriously growing need. So, I'm going to say welcome, Amir. Thank you for joining us.

Amir Kia: [00:01:23] My pleasure. It's nice to be here.

CCB: [00:01:25] We're delighted to have you, because we've tracked you down and our, uh, we have been very insistent in having you share your story. So, I'd love for you to spend a little bit of time explaining the backstory of how and why you got into the career path that you are constantly engaged in today.

Amir Kia: [00:01:43] Sure I would, I'd love to do that. I'm from Iran. I was born there. And right before the revolution, my parents decided to move to the Bay Area. And at the same time they were going through, uh, a rather epic battle of duking it out in their own personal affairs and divorce. And what meant for me and my brother, my older brother, who is my business partner, is that our grandparents stepped in, and they became a very critical part of our day-to-day life and growing up. So, they came with us to the Bay Area; we came to Marin, a nice place to be. Our dad had already established himself here in the Bay Area. And both culturally and by nature of the way we grew up, being with seniors was very natural to us, very comfortable, and something we very much loved, and quite impactful to how we were raised and how we see the world. And if we fast forward a few decades or a couple of decades, our involvement in senior housing and with seniors was quite accidental. And it happened with being involved in a small board and care home in San Francisco with another older brother that we have, and we basically rolled up our sleeves to try to help this boarding care home improve.

Amir Kia: [00:03:04] And we didn't really know anything about the field of senior housing or senior care, but what was really natural to us was just the commonsense approach of how to be with an elder. And we loved it because we grew up with it. So, we became caregivers, cooks, drivers, pretty much everything, learning along the way how to create community in a small home. And one thing that we were noticing that was kind of odd to us and puzzling, this is maybe 25 years ago, was that we would get calls from hospitals or discharge planners or doctors where they would, a family member is looking for their loved one, a mom or a dad, to place them in a in a senior living environment. And we found that the more care you needed, the more likely you would be placed in a very institutional setting, even though you didn't need that. And we thought that that was just, that paradigm just did not make any sense to us. The last thing you need, when you're already dealing with health issues, is to be in an environment that will make you feel miserable. We're big believers in creating beautiful environments and communities where...

Amir Kia: [00:04:20] When you walk in just the space itself, the energy of the space, the way it's designed, you will know that that's a reflection of how you see yourself and how other people will see you. And so, the more beautiful the space, the more sense of community and connection, the more you'll reflect that in your well-being. And so, we set out to create beautiful spaces that are also part of the fabric of urban neighborhoods, walkable neighborhoods. For us, being in a walkable community is essential, specially creating that opportunity for seniors. As they get, become more frail, it's more difficult to move about, and it creates that intergenerational living that you see that's so common. It's almost second nature when you go to other cultures, for example, if you walk to any European city, any old town, and you go to the old town square, which you notice is the elders sitting at the town square, playing or observing, playing their games. And you have these kids and just this life revolves around them, and it's quite beautiful. And we don't see that here. And I think creating communities in urban settings that are walkable for seniors as they get older, and more frail is essential in creating that fabric for everyone.

CCB: [00:05:45] So you just you just introduced practically every, you know, minor topic that I wanted to ask about, which is fantastic.

Amir Kia: So we're done, because..

CCB: No, we're not done. We have a few more questions because I want to drive down a little deeper into your business, Spirit Living is intentionally urban, and creating that sense of community and social connection among residents. And how do you, from a planning perspective, how do you approach that when you're looking for spaces or looking for properties or looking for land? How does, how does that process flow?

Amir Kia: [00:06:21] It starts with the neighborhood. We will look at a neighborhood and ask ourselves, is this a place that we would want to walk around? Are there services in the area where we would love to frequent cafes, restaurants, grocery stores? And from there we look for properties that are large enough where you could develop. Most of what we've done in the past 20-25 years has been ground up development. And then, then you’re left to look at the footprint of that site and whether you can actually there's enough scale and the zoning allows you to build your common spaces and amenity spaces, and the number of units that you need to make it work with the size that you have?

CCB: [00:07:10] And do you run into...I and number of our colleagues were at the Environments for Aging conference in Atlanta recently, and there was a through thread, if you will, in the conversation around local ordinances. What are the challenges, if you will, that come about from specifically looking to build senior housing?

Amir Kia: [00:07:33] The challenges, and they've changed over time in our careers as essentially focused on developing senior housing. The current challenge now, is one of funding and financing. It's just very difficult to have projects become financially feasible. These are new developments, very, very difficult to with higher interest rate climate, banks aren't lending and there is just not enough capital. Other challenges - when you build in urban infill locations typically you're going vertical. And your construction type changes to get the correct fire rating. You're building out of more expensive materials to get licensure, and we typically like to license our buildings. Our communities are licensed by Department of Social Services, the Community Care Licensing division, and we'd like to have our communities licensed as non-ambulatory, which would allow a resident who is ambulatory, able to ambulate or move on their own, age in place. So if they require more services or they can't get about, they don't have to leave the community. And so, when you're building vertical, it just becomes more expensive. And the other challenges in urban settings parking, accommodating parking, although senior housing does require less parking. And then a curious one for us that we've encountered is, most urban developments or jurisdictions would require your ground floor to be retail, commercial, open to the public, and in some places, retail doesn't work and you have a lot of empty spaces. So how do you create an active, vibrant ground floor design in an area where traditional retail doesn't work? And we've actually found that that's been a great benefit, so to speak, and that we have been able to...

Amir Kia: [00:09:36] Design our active spaces that are typically maybe somewhere else in the community, right in front and very visible to the neighborhood. So, for example, our community in Berkeley, right off of University on San Pablo. You have you walk into the community and your first experience is floor to ceiling glass. And it's our art lab, and it's a space, intergenerational space intended for kids that are homeschooled or after school programs where they come in and they, it's a creative space, it's an art lab, and it's the same space that our seniors use for their own activities. So, creating these connection points, these spaces that allow natural relationships to form over time so it's not just a holiday and a school comes through to sing some kind of holiday song, but it's just become, becomes part of the fabric of the community. And so that's actually if that space were to be just traditional retail open to the public, let's say retail, and it may not be leased out for a long time. But if the intention is to activate a space, we're doing the same thing by actually welcoming the community into our building and creating that intergenerational connection. And so that was also a conversation that we had with the city, and they were very open to that and were able to implement it in Berkeley.

CCB: [00:11:10] That's fantastic. So when you mentioned location, your business is very regionally specific. And there's even, I think I read something on your website that said you wanted to be within driving distance to be able to oversee the communities that you create. Which your intentional support, I mean, focus on and supportive community is laudable when we're talking about any people, but when we're talking about seniors that tend to, can often have limited or greater isolation or, you know, more limited community because of where they are in their in their life cycle. I think it's absolutely lovely. And so, I wondered if you could speak to the why behind that? Why would you keep yourself limited?

Amir Kia: [00:12:01] I think it's it's a personal, i's a personal decision that is more of based on our own values of wanting to be I mean, community and creating community is a core value for us. And if we can't be a part of the daily life of a community, then it's really hard to talk about it, but not experience it ourselves. So, the fact that my brother went to UC Berkeley, I went to the Graduate Theological Union. The fact that we can just drive to our community, have lunch or dinner with our residents, or walk to the High Wire Cafe or Meteora or Middle Eastern Market with them. It's it's why we started in the first place, and it keeps us grounded to the purpose of of why we do what we do, that's for us, for families. I think being in an environment where there are, there are reasons to come here. You know, it's there's some residents, actually a lot of residents, not just in our community. I think it's common everywhere. Visitation and having families and friends come by it's not that often. I mean, maybe you have a weekend visit, but if you can create spaces that invite, that welcome people, they want to come, it just allows that more, more of that interaction. And so, a family member may come and take a loved one to a cafe because it's just a, you know, High Wire’s an amazing roastery right across the street, or a bakery, Lavender Bakery right next door.

Amir Kia: [00:13:36] The design, I think you saw it when you were here. When you walk into our community, just the high ceilings, full of light. You see straight back to the garden. And the garden has these play structures that are also, physical therapy equipment. And so, if you have a five-year-old or a seven-year-old or grandkids coming. There's they run straight out that they're playing on the parallel bars. They're going through the dining room. They, there's now a cafe that we opened at the corner that's opened by a mother or daughter; they're bakers. They make the most incredible baked goods, cakes and pastries. And now it's just this wonderful nook and hub of our residents going there and having just a different experience that feels like you're out of the community, but you're in the community. It's just a different venue. And that venue is open to the neighborhood. So, it's creating these spaces that that encourage people to use and want to be in. So, I think that's kind of the core principle of it.

CCB: [00:14:47] So I have two questions from that train of thought. First is how do you find your partners that you create the spaces with? Who are the architects and the designers? Okay, I'll ask that question first, because there’s such an attention to detail and because you have a vision, how do you find the right people?

Amir Kia: [00:15:08] That's a very good question. Every project is different. And it's it's nice to work with teams that have done projects locally or maybe have experience with the local environment. It's not essential. We love to find partners, creative partners that can think out of the box, that maybe have done other types of housing that could make us look at senior housing differently. For example, let's just say the hospitality space, which is now done more frequently. You know, through the lens of just senior housing. you've always seen it one way. And even though there are a lot of improvements, you never see what's possible. When you go to now, this very unique hospitality setting and you realize both in terms of space planning, the furniture, the colors, the amenity spaces, it's just incredible. And so, bringing that, the different, um, perspectives is really important and every project is different. We're looking at a project right now, we've been designing. It's in Mill Valley, and this one will have a horse barn as part of the community. And we plan to integrate therapy. We, so that will have a complete different team of people that would envision what's possible to integrate that kind of programming. The ground floor space, by the way, in Berkeley, the art lab originally was to be called a Sticky Art lab. And our partner there actually was, or was to be, Sticky Artlab, which is on University Avenue, close to Oxford, close to the campus. And unfortunately they, it wasn't able, I guess the bandwidth wasn't there to expand. But we worked with Rachel, one of the founders there, to design our space as much as possible after what works for them. It's it's an incredible space. So, looking at what is happening in the community, what are the the spaces and the organizations and the services that are really providing. Exceptional services, finding out how they do well, who's behind those spaces and bringing them into the ones that we want to create.

CCB: [00:17:35] Yeah. So, the other corollary to that question, you know, the how do you find the partners and then how do you find your residents?

Amir Kia: [00:17:43] The residents typically come from the local community in the sense, you know, people like to be, for the most part, residents who have been, you know, grew up in a particular city. And, yeah, they've, grew up, especially Berkeley, if you've lived in Berkeley, grew up in Berkeley, you'd like to stay in Berkeley. A lot of it comes from within the city or town where the community is located. And also, I would say just as much it's a family member, let's say the adult child who lives in Berkeley and wants their parent to be near them because they want to be able to see them more often. And as that parent is getting more frail, they become more worried. And let's say they're out of state, it's better for them to be near. So that's also, I mean, it's really the adult child who is a big decision maker and why a resident moves into a community.

CCB: [00:18:42] Kind of a different tangent, when you talk about your partners and list folks that you, you know, work closely with, you do mention organizations like Spirit Rock and MEA, the Modern Elder Academy and the Theological Union. And there's there is a not only very clear sense of compassion in what your organization, what your business does. But there's also kind of a nod to mindfulness and wellbeing in a way that that is a bit beyond the, you know, yoga class, not to take anything away from yoga classes being offered. But how do you. how do you think about programming or what programs are going to be offered in different communities?

Amir Kia: [00:19:31] I think mindfulness is a core element to everything we should be doing in our, I guess, in our own individual lives and potentially in the lives of the care partners and support staff and the senior communities or other communities. And so kind of on a tangent there, right now, we're working, or in conversation with the Zen Caregiving Project to implement their mindfulness training program for our staff. And the philosophy is that if we can bring mindfulness to ourselves as directors, executive directors and care partners, if we can bring that mindfulness in our own lives, we’ll be more present in the lives of others. And also, offering that to our residents and their family members. I think it's it's so much of a, of this, is about awareness of everything we do. We can have. or anybody can have a program which sounds wonderful, but if it's done without awareness, it could just come across as, um, less meaningful. And on the flip side, you can have no programming. Sit mindfully with an elder, just hold their hand and breathe. And it could be the most transformative moment, for you and the elder you're sitting with. And I bring that up as it relates to even residents that have various forms of dementia, where a lot of it is about being present and aware and creating a space and container for them where they can be who they are, in that moment.

CCB: [00:21:27] Hmm, that makes me think about. and it is another one of the tangents and forgive me, but the nature of the safety that is required to be considered, you know, in, in almost all planning. I was struck by one conversation at the Environments for Aging that was around, it was around technology. But it was talking about the doors and the locking system, the keying of the doors, and what areas could be secured and what areas, you know, could be open. And how is that managed, and who are the experts that think their way through that?

Amir Kia: [00:22:00] If a community offers memory care support, typically that's its own, has its own safety criteria, where exits are monitored or are secured, and you need to have touch points with people to exit. And so there's just you have different types of professionals that work with that technology. And that technology also has to speak to the fire regulations of when those locked doors need to disengage in cases of emergency. Technology is a huge and rapidly evolving. I mean, every day it's, just there’re new, new things that are coming that will improve the life of seniors, not just in communities like ours, but at home. And every piece of technology has its own, a kind of subset or professionals. So for example. around lighting where now we're looking at the the potential of circadian rhythm lighting for regulating sleep with residents that have dementia. So that if they have a full night's sleep the following day, they're more grounded, more able to get through the day, as opposed to just a simple light switch that you would, may turn on in the middle of the night. And all of a sudden, the the temperature of that light is 3000 or more and your circadian rhythm is off. You're awake.

Amir Kia: [00:23:35] You haven't had a full night's sleep. The next day you're more agitated. And it's just could be as simple as that light switch not turning on to 100% or coming on to maybe a much lower temperature. So the person is still in that sleep state, but safe to walk to, to use the bathroom. So there's so much technology out there. And there's also I think a point where we have to be mindful, we being just as a kind of a as a community of, when technology maybe can, we can, you can have too much technology and you lose the human touch. That's also essential. But it's interesting. I was just visiting a community where they're starting to integrate robots in their dining room. I never thought that that could be like, yeah, well, I didn't think it would be received as well as it, I saw it received in the community, but residents were engaging with it. The robot would come with trays of food, right? Right there, right next to the table. Residents would take it, put it, you know, on their table. The robot would go back to the kitchen. And it was a really interesting engagement that was, seemed to work for everybody.

CCB: [00:24:58] That is actually amazing. I remember the first time I saw the robots delivering food was at UC Berkeley a number of years ago. I just thought, oh, that's so fascinating. It was on campus and they were the little guys were running around. So, I mean, you bring up what strikes me, is the nature of the intergenerational, the multigenerational lives that we're leading today that we all are surrounded by. And, you know, how are people of all the different age groups embracing whatever this evolution is? And it's one of the things that we recognize very clearly as, as place makers, is that that trope “change is constant”, is accelerated, the pace of change is continuing. And to manage through that within, you know, communities where there's a, uh, there's an appetite for it, but perhaps not the same appetite that, you know, younger generations might have. Which makes me think about how do you find staff members? And there was a big conversation that I heard at EFA around, you know, holding on to them and making their lives, as you referenced, you know, teaching mindfulness, making their lives easier so that the entire experience is more valuable for both residents and staff?

Amir Kia: [00:26:24] Yes, staff staffing has been a real challenge for senior communities. I think hospitality in general, service driven businesses just there's such a shortage of staffing. The one, I think the one silver lining for staff or, you know, entry level staff, is that it's forced pay rates to be much higher, um, which is still quite low, but at least it's starting to get to the point where, you know, you're getting hopefully to more livable wages. Especially how expensive things are in the Bay area, uh, it's very difficult. And there's, there tends to be a lot of staff turnover. Um, I think for staff you know, where you can create a sense of community and a connection to values and what you're doing, where, uh, pay is important as it is, is complemented by purpose and. Um, I think that's really important. The people in this field are incredibly heartful, and they will resonate and appreciate any community that is truly grounded in values and actually walks the talk that that to them, they want to be part of that. The other thing that also is my takeaway from the conference, which we're trying to do, is place a lot more emphasis around the, spaces that the staff need for their well-being. So for example, where you have a staff room, where typically staff rooms are kind of a second thought around, well, you don't really put much time or energy into it. We did, for example in Berkeley, our staff room has floor to ceiling glass, has an outdoor patio, actually shares the patio with the residents. When you walk in, it's cheerful, it's light, it's amenitized. And it's not this dark space where you just go to pass, you know, half an hour. I think that's really important.

CCB: [00:28:39] I would say I would we would concur with you 100%. In working in, in all of the health care, you know, environments or any environment where there's actually, you know, a huge demand that there’s stress and there's pressure, the ability to offer respite and refuge, you know, rejuvenation spaces is critical. And we see it in education as well. So, so I think, you know, it makes perfect sense. And it's, it's fantastic that, um, that the uh, consideration is being emphasized, you know, in all different types of environments, which, and you, you raised the purpose word, which is kind of...we’re at the end of our, our recording here, recording time. But I'd love a purpose driven organization clearly is more attractive to people who want to be affiliated with purpose. So, there's something just lovely and circular about that.

Amir Kia: [00:29:43] Yes, definitely. It's at the end of the day when you leave your work environment, if you can walk away with a sense that you have given to somebody. I think that's just invaluable.

CCB: [00:29:55] So it is the end of the recording time. And I want to say, Amir, thank you very much. Is there anything else that you'd like to share with our listening audience that you think we haven't addressed or anything you'd like to reinforce?

Amir Kia: [00:30:07] Just one topic that comes to my mind when you talk about safety and technology and thinking a little bit out of the box and being able to look at other examples around the world of how community is created. And being able to integrate the best of what everybody is doing in other parts of the world, that I was just, I flashed on this memory that I had of visiting the dementia village in Amsterdam. It's the Hogeweyk and is just a remarkable space of community with, I think, maybe 170 residents, various forms of dementia, some quite advanced, in a village concept. And what struck me in terms of, you know, how did they address safety and security and technology? And the way that they did it was fostering as much independence and removing as much barriers as possible, which was completely contrary to what we're used to seeing. And it was just a different way of thinking in that you have all these amenities for seniors that are quite, again, needed quite a bit of support and supervision. Yet it's done with the least amount of barriers. I mean, we were walking by and I would see railings that three floors up that are, you know, 36in high. And I'm like, why? Are you sure that you know why? Why aren't they higher? What if somebody falls over? Or why, why would, what if somebody climbs over it? And the response was, why would they? And I said why, why are your, why do you have knives in the kitchens where residents can access? And the comment was, well, because if we lock them then they'll try to open it. But if it's open, they won't feel like something's being withheld that they need to try to get to. I'm not saying necessarily that, I'm not advocating for these things, but the thought that if you actually create independence and freedom, you may be able to actually remove more barriers and restrictions.

CCB: [00:32:32] Ending with that holistic thinking is, I think, is kind of where we started with the nature of the organization that you and your brother have created with all of the partners that you've worked with, is is very purposeful and building community, and we applaud it enormously. And for all of our listeners, there is a web page which will have links to all of the references to organizations and activities that Amir has raised on this conversation today, and the ONEder podcast streams on all streaming services, so we'll look forward to hearing from others with you again. And I want to say again, thank you so much Amirr, for your time.

Amir Kia: [00:33:17] My pleasure. Carolyn, great talking to you.

CCB: [00:33:19] It was lovely.