04/30/2012 10:07 am ET Updated Jun 30, 2012

Tim Carpenter: Social Entrepreneur Is Revolutionizing Senior Housing

Forget bingo and donuts. Social entrepreneur and aging expert Tim Carpenter is quietly revolutionizing senior living. Carpenter is the Founder and Executive Director of EngAGE, a nonprofit organization that offers affordable senior arts colonies focused on wellness, life-long learning, community building, and intergenerational arts programs. An operative word here is "affordable." EngAGE's Burbank Senior Artists Colony in California is a flagship community poised to become a model for others throughout the country. It's an ensemble of attractive independent apartments united around an arts community that features a theater group, an independent film company, and a fine arts collective, with courses in digital filmmaking, performance and writing. But instead of boasting an astronomical price tag, EngAGE'S art colonies serve low- and moderate-income seniors.

"I wanted to help people who are low-income because they didn't have anything cool for themselves," said Carpenter, who worked in real estate to understand the mechanics of the development community and launch his vision for creative and sustainable aging. Carpenters emphasizes the value of having something beyond old age as the glue that holds a community together. "Whether it's the art of learning or health or foodie stuff or spirituality -- whatever it is that excites people and turns them on every day -- that should be the glue that binds them. The idea of walking out your door and finding a bunch of like-minded people is the best part of the whole commune thing."

Elected an Ashoka Fellow, which recognizes leading social entrepreneurs who have innovative solutions to social problems, Carpenter credits being raised in a large Irish Catholic family and appreciating the story-telling virtues of older people with his desire to change the age/retirement paradigm: "I realized that older people just tell better stories than younger people. I always ended up at their end of the dinner table." Carpenter serves on the board of directors for the National Center for Creative Aging and has received a James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award for his work. We recently spoke with him about what how his model works.

What motivated you to commit yourself to this crusade?

It really began as this realization that there was a giant hole out there. I'd walk into these senior places and see what people had to look forward to every week: It was bingo and donuts. There were community rooms where you could literally peel the nicotine off the walls. There were all of these really cool people in there just dying. Healthcare is so regulated and I got tired of just banging my head against the Medicare wall. I saw housing as a crucible for what I wanted to do.

How so?

In housing, there's this great combination of population and money. So I went to work for a real estate developer and learned the business. It was like being an apprentice in the old days. I wanted to learn a trade and then apply that trade to something I really wanted to do in my life. I realized that in real estate development, there are lots of line items and lots of spreadsheets with lots and lots of dollars attached to them. And no one was really doing anything with it.

So I developed a model based on college and sought out a whole-person approach that focused on wellness and life-long learning and intergenerational community building. In 1999, I basically cold-called the city of Burbank and said, 'Hey, I've got this whacky idea. I grew up near an artist colony in New York and I want to create this place where people can get old and the commonality between them was not about being over a certain, but about the arts.' And they loved the idea.

What was it about a college model that appealed to you?

I very quickly realized that there weren't any models in aging that I wanted to be a part of. Much of what I saw was disrespectful -- people stuck in corners and warehoused somewhere. So I started thinking that if you look at senior life through the right kind of goggles, it's very similar to college: You're going from one stage in life to another. If you take away cost and transportation, it's got that same sense of opening to it. I remember the moment when I got my first college catalogue. I thought: 'Oh my God, everything's available to me.' That's what I wanted to hand older people. I want to inject them with enthusiasm to learn and grow and take on new things.

So we modeled our communities after college. Instead of doing arts and crafts where people put popsicle sticks together in a corner with some lame activities director, we started hiring college-level professors and doing real programming. We put things on a semester basis, and end every semester with culminating events and opportunities to use skills in real-life applications. If you do a painting class, you have an art show. If there's a poetry class, we have a poetry slam. If we teach a creative writing class, people get up on stage to perform. We make plays and do films. Last semester we did a claymation program with older adults mentoring teens, where each of them did a two-minute claymation film together.

Anything we come across that looks great we apply to our model and absorb it. We find great teachers and pay really good wages.

And here's the amazing part: You've made all this affordable.

Yes, 95 percent of the people are living at poverty level or below.

How does your model work?

Basically the year that I spent in real estate development taught me what I needed to know about how developers make money and what they value. So I learned their language and created a model that developers could use to win tax credits and tax exemptions and bonds, and city municipality subsidies. We sold them on the fact that our story differentiates their community from just another pile of sticks and bricks and gives them a competitive edge. And that really matters when they stand up in front of a city council or a planning commission or a transportation-oriented development committee that's looking at pumping lots of money into one project versus the other.

We fought tooth and nail every step along the way to educate developers that this is a very important part of what they're doing in their industry and they could really leave a legacy -- and make a lot of money. But our model is really collaborative. I don't to own it. I want to teach other people how do it and get them on their legs and let them fly.

That's genius branding -- and it's socially responsible.

It's just about learning about what motivates. People think developers are evil money-suckers, but a lot of them really want to develop a really good product; they just don't know how. We've become experts at that. We're very involved in the architecture upfront and are reliant partners guiding every step of the way with a developer, rather than acting as an after-the-fact vendor.

It seems like a genuine win-win. Are you exporting this model around the country?

Yes, that's our next step. We just got a grant from the Irvine Foundation to take this on the road. And we're bringing our systems up to speed so we can go in and contract with local nonprofits and teach them how to contract with developers, how to find pieces of land, how to negotiate affordable deals. We spend a couple of years with people supervising things from afar and then we let them fly. We've targeted a few cities now: the Bay area, Sacramento and San Diego. We've also got projects in Minneapolis, Portland and a couple in Arizona. We're looking for partners in key cities around the country. We're really just trying to target places that would be cool to retire in.

I assume that in building these communities, you're thinking about how you, personally, would like to retire?

Yes, absolutely. Where would I want to go and what would I want to do? I think that's a big shift in the industry. There's always a point when people think about their aging parents and ask: 'Would I put my mom or dad there?' That's not a bad question, but a better question is, 'Would I live there?' Baby boomers go through this every day. That said, our parents spent their entire lives making our lives better than theirs. We owe it to them to give it back to them.

What's one thing you know now that you wish you knew growing up?

I've learned that fear doesn't do you any good. It just paralyzes you. Moving forward with conviction tends to be 99 percent of things. There's a lot to be said for finding your bliss and your passion, and for taking a risk and moving forward with it. And that's what we're doing with older people. We want them to be our partners. I don't want people sitting around in their old age saying, 'Okay Tim, what do you have for me today?' I want it to be equal and 50/50. I want them to challenge me. I want them to have the guts to change their lives and really look at this as valuable time -- and not like the lido deck on the Love Boat. That's not what we're here for. We're here to teach them to learn how to fish for themselves.

Check out the slideshow below for images of Carpenter, his Burbank development and his TED Talk, "Thriving As We Age."

Tim Carpenter