John O'Connor illustration
McKnight’s Editorial Director John O’Connor
John O'Connor
John O’Connor

There’s something happening in Carbondale, IL, that the senior living field might want to pay attention to. Especially operators mulling their next strategic move.

There, two schools that have been closed for decades will be reborn as senior living communities, if a developer behind the renovation succeeds. In all, the transition will create 21 assisted living units, along with 16 more for independent living.

That sure sounds better than the alternative outcome: once-useful buildings slowly falling apart in the weeds.

I’m a big fan of this kind of repurposing, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it’s a great way to take existing structures no longer in use and convert them into something that actually serves the surrounding community.

Such conversions also mean that more new land does not need to be set aside for the same reason.

Repurposing buildings also can help tremendously reduce labor and material costs.

And the trend should not be limited to closed schools. Frankly, old factories, warehouses, houses of worship and other sufficiently large structures that no longer are in use should be considered fair game. It’s not like there won’t be demand for the new housing that results, especially if it’s affordable.

To be sure, we’re already seeing this shift occur at many former shopping malls, now that Jeff Bezos has largely eliminated the need to shop outside the home.

Not that repurposing old structures is always easy-peasey. One of the potentially biggest challenges can be the not-in-my-yard mindset that prevails in many communities. It’s almost as if the locals see senior housing as more of a menace than a benefit.

But isn’t it funny how the same folks who will gladly welcome artery-clogging food sellers, car dealerships and nail salons draw the line at a housing and lifestyle option that they themselves may eventually need? As Mr. O’Boyle, my high school geometry teacher, often said, go figure.

Plus, there’s the risk that construction cost savings can be illusory. No doubt, it can sometimes cost more to renovate and improve a structure than to raze and rebuild.

But let’s face it, a lot of what we used to build was made better. Especially when it comes to materials and craftsmanship. I’ll take an old plaster wall over drywall any day of the week. Same goes for windows, crown molding, hardwood floors, masonry and many of the other features of, ahem, old construction.

And there’s this: many residents in a refurbished building may have a long-established attachment to the place.

Don’t get me wrong. I like new and improved as much as the next person. Especially if it makes my life a bit more pleasant. But many of the things our throwaway society can’t get rid of fast enough are actually quite valuable.

Of course, if you are in the senior living sector, you already know that.

John O’Connor is editorial director for McKnight’s Senior Living and its sister media brands, McKnight’s Long-Term Care News, which focuses on skilled nursing, and McKnight’s Home Care. Read more of his columns here.