At age 67, John Erickson knows a thing or two about being a “senior.” In many ways, he’s been preparing for the role for decades.
For three decades, Erickson envisioned and built innovative communities for seniors, understanding before most that an active, social lifestyle and access to good health care were essential for the mental and physical health of seniors.
He also recognized that addressing important issues confronting people over age 55 will have ripple effects on the quality of life for their children and grandchildren and generations to come.
As the founder of Erickson Retirement Communities, Erickson created a string of 19 communities along the Eastern seaboard, housing more than 23,000 seniors. His company was named one of the best 100 places to work by Fortune magazine.
He could have stopped there. But instead, he took what he possessed — a deep understanding of senior America and its strengths — and launched cable network Retirement Living TV in 2006, to provide a new voice to a generation largely ignored by television media.
With an easy smile and down-to-earth manner that belie his visionary status, Erickson has revolutionized the way people perceive Baby Boomers and the generation known as Matures. A career spent in close alignment with senior America has given him a passion for the generations who “understand sacrifice, understand how to build a nation, and have the healthiest perspective you could ask for.”
He was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee — the fourth of 14 children. His mother, who had to drop out of college during the Depression, was the driving force of the family. She insisted that all her children would achieve higher learning.
“As a result of my mother doing whatever it took, all 14 of us went on to college, and nine of us received graduate degrees,” Erickson says. For a handful of years, his family was even lauded in the Guinness Book of World Records for having more college degrees than any other family in the world.
Erickson traces his interest in senior lifestyles back to the 1970s, when he worked for a real estate developer in Florida, building leisure housing developments.
It was the community aspect of those projects that intrigued him. He observed the way social webs enriched residents’ lives.
The seed of an idea began to form in his mind.
“I realized that for every person who moved to Florida for leisure retirement, there were 20 more middle-income folks staying in their home who might benefit from being in a community with a rich social network,” he says.
Retirement communities were nothing new at the time, of course. But as Erickson formulated a vision for a new style of retirement community, he bent a couple of major rules.
First, he realized that people in middle America weren’t able to put down a six-figure deposit they would never see again. At the time, the six-figure endowment or insurance model of leisure retirement — which bundled all costs — was appealing to higher-income 60-year-old retirees. But that sort of retirement wasn’t an option for a 75-year-old middle-class person, says Erickson.
“I thought, if I were to return deposits to people when they leave, that would be an attractive proposition to middle America,” he says.
He made it even more appealing by giving retirees a choice in how they used their money.
Residents would pay a main fee for housing, meals, transportation, etc. Then they would decide whether or not to pay for extra services. That twist on the old model allowed senior Americans to continue living within their means, while having access to services when they needed them.
In the early 1980s, he had the chance to test his idea, when he turned an abandoned turn-of-the-century seminary in Catonsville, Md., into a $250 million campus called Charlestown Retirement Village.
Right out of the gate, Erickson’s new continuing-care retirement community outsold the rest of the industry. Soon, it had triple and quadruple the sales of other properties.
And almost immediately, Erickson began to learn — sometimes by accident — the ingredients for a healthy, happy community of seniors. He calls them “the six pillars of successful aging.” The ingredients include exercise, diet, spiritual well-being, a comprehensive wellness and health care plan, and financial security.
The final ingredient, he says, is a social structure. “A senior couple living in their home in Chicago may believe they have a social network, but that may not be true. If they’ve reached the point where they’re not driving at night, and their friends are sick so they don’t show up for bridge, and they’re only talking to each other — then that’s a slippery slope.
“You gain a real spirit of community when there are no barriers to joining in a social structure, when people can get involved and be active,” he says.
Launching RLTV was a natural extension of Erickson’s interest in the spirit of community among the 55-plus set. “Seniors are an engaged, passionate group who are deeply concerned about the legacy they’re leaving their grandchildren,” he says.
By broadcasting a positive image of the true lives of seniors, he hopes to change America’s views.
“We in this country have a negative attitude about aging,” he says. “Through RLTV, I want to show the contribution they’re making. I want to inspire and celebrate what’s happening in senior America.”