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Environmental Concerns

Painting Retirement Green

Older Americans find ways to reduce their carbon footprint





giant wind turbines

— Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Atria Senior Living Group filed two of those registrations. One of the biggest providers of older-adult housing and assisted living facilities, Atria’s 120 communities are home to about 13,000 residents. “Though the percentage of seniors inquiring about this issue has been relatively small, it appears to be increasing each month,” says Randall Smith, Atria’s vice president for redevelopment operations. “We have also experienced greater numbers of adult children asking about green building initiatives when touring our communities with or for their parents.”

Indeed, developers who build for older Americans may soon have to go green to stay in business. “The pig coming through the python is the boomer generation,” says LEED-accredited builder Joe Wagman of Wagman Construction in York, Pa. “Within a few years, your new prospective resident is going to show up and ask first, ‘What’s your bandwidth?’ and second, ‘What’s your carbon footprint?’ ”

Green plans

So what are they doing to go green?

“Everyone starts with the light bulbs,” Robert Lane says. Switching from incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescent is no mean feat on an institutional scale, however. The nonprofit Mennonite Home Communities, a continuing care facility in Lancaster, Pa., with about 900 residents, started switching to fluorescent lights a couple of years ago to save both energy and money. “We have a community of residents saying, let’s reduce our energy use, reduce our carbon footprint,” says J. Nelson Kling, president of the nonprofit. Kling estimates that a single building might have 1,000 sconces illuminating the hallways. Replacing bulbs across the campus took time but has saved thousands of dollars in electricity costs, he says.

After replacing light bulbs, the focus usually turns to recycling. Then comes the switch—or at least the desire to switch—to natural cleaning products. The cleaning agents in most commercially available products contain caustic chemicals that can irritate tissue in the sinuses and lungs. Regular exposure to these chemicals can further compromise the respiratory systems of those with chronic pulmonary obstruction, asthma and other respiratory diseases. Housekeeping staff can also suffer from the constant exposure.

But it can be a tough change to make. One director of a California CCRC says he has yet to find a natural product that can clean adequately. “It’s a tossup between respiratory health and hygiene,” he says. “We haven’t found the panacea.”

Then come the projects with bigger conservation impact but correspondingly bigger price tags: high-efficiency appliances, double-pane windows, low-flow showers, sinks and toilets, rainwater irrigation, native-plant landscaping, and the biggest investment of all—getting off the power grid.

Expenses were on the minds of the residents of Valle Verde, a continuing care community in Santa Barbara, Calif., when the managers decided to look at ways to reduce energy dependency, says Ron Schaefer, executive director. “At first our residents were worried that it would cost them money. But we had some easy successes early on with things that didn’t cost a lot of money, and we got some momentum.”

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