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What The Heck Is A NOSS And What Does It Have To Do With Senior Living?

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By Sue Ronnenkamp, MHA

What's a NOSS?

You likely know about the NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities). The NOSS is a new acronym that stands for Naturally Occurring Support Systems. It popped in my head when I read Steve Moran’s recent article titled The Winning Path to Solving the Middle Income Problem.       

The NOSS isn’t new. It’s been around for centuries. Think of rural barn raisings and neighbors gathering together to bring in the fall harvest. Most of us have a NOSS on some level (with family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, etc.). We also know it makes good economic sense to share support, rather than pay for all we need – whether it’s for pet care, tech help, yard care tools, home maintenance advice, and more.     

So why doesn’t the NOSS jump out as one viable answer to the middle (and lower) income problem in our industry? I’ve witnessed many ways that this adds value in later life – especially for those without the resources to pay for help and support in all ways needed and wanted. Here are several examples of how the NOSS can work and provide benefits in economical and meaningful ways.  

It Can Buy Time and Extend Resources

My parents (good, middle income people) made the proactive decision to downsize from their home to an apartment when they were in their 70s. At that time they were both healthy and had no idea that my mom would have her first stroke at age 78. They already had some friends in this complex, and quickly made new connections with others their age and younger. This downsized setting and their NOSS served them well for over a decade – even with Mom’s growing support needs.

It also stretched their financial resources. This allowed them to afford a move to a nearby retirement community when Mom’s needs grew beyond the NOSS and supplemented help from a home care company. Then Mom had to transition to skilled nursing. Because of their extended resources, Dad could afford to stay in his IL apartment until his death – AND private pay for Mom’s skilled needs for five years until she died. This was no small feat whatsoever – and only possible because they bought time earlier.

“In-between” housing was also an extender for a good friend of mine. She moved to a condo after a later-in-life divorce. She formed her NOSS with several women who lived in nearby units – all older and without spouses like her. They went to the theatre together, participated in the same book clubs, and watched out for each other. When my friend saw age 90 fast approaching, she sold her condo and moved into a quality retirement community. There she enjoyed living in her lovely (and now affordable) two-bedroom apartment, where she remained active and involved and happy the last years of her life.    

It Can Add Value To Low Income Housing

Another close friend lived in low income senior housing for many years. She didn’t choose this path, but her money was poorly managed and this was her only option. She didn’t let this get her down. Instead, she quickly fostered connections with neighbors and peers. Good thing, since services and amenities were bare to none. But by banding together, their NOSS made this a good place to live – something I saw firsthand every time I visited.

Those who could drive supplemented their limited transportation service. They signed up for the later life learning program at a nearby college and car pooled to get there. They got involved in two area senior centers. They organized special lunch outings (a treat since only a few meals were provided weekly) and created a community garden. They supported each other during times of need (e.g., helped with pet care, picked up groceries). One resident even took on a special mission to collect used clothing from those with too much to share with those with too little. They also gathered together every evening in the outside lawn chair circle or around tables for games and conversation.   

It Can Expand and Extend Quality of Life

The NOSS is also alive and flourishing in many senior living communities. I knew a resident with a significant hearing loss who paired up with a neighbor with very limited vision to stay active and involved. I saw a blind resident partner up with a fully sighted friend so she could walk and go to classes for exercise. And I saw cognitively intact and impaired residents bond together and enjoy a wide range of activities and interests.  

In all these cases, the alternative would have been hiring added help or disengaging from things they enjoyed doing. Instead, each NOSS allowed these residents to team up and make a whole without added expense, while keeping purpose, companionship, and meaning alive. Combining working parts with peers also enables many to “age in place” longer and delay “higher support” moves – resulting in big cost savings and extended quality of life.  

Is the NOSS a Possible Solution?

In Part II, I’ll offer more examples of how the NOSS can add value and expand the affordability of quality living in later life. Today I’ll end by reiterating what Steve wrote in his article, The Winning Path to Solving the Middle Income Problem . . . if we can’t find better solutions to serving and supporting the middle and lower income sector, this large group of people will end up benefitting little from our extended longevity. The NOSS won’t resolve everything that needs fixing, but it can make a huge difference for many – now and in the future.

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