Real Estate Gives Back: Helping Seniors in Economic Jeopardy

Senior housing executives Rob Gillette and Dale Watchovski started a foundation that helps seniors maintain dignity and independence.
LtoR: Rob Gilette, COO, American House Senior Living Communities, and Bob Watchowski, president and CEO, REDICO and American House Senior Living Communities. Photo courtesy of American House Senior Living Communities

American House Senior Living Communities COO Rob Gilette traces the roots of his company’s foundation back to the “charity circuit” night he attended with his father and company founder, Bob Gilette, more than a decade ago.

On the drive home, the father and son realized that neither actually had a personal connection to the black-tie event. Moreover, neither understood anything about the cause they had just so generously supported with their checkbooks. 

The next morning, according to Dale Watchowski, president and CEO of American House Senior Living Communities and REDICO, the father and son duo came into the office ready to hammer out a plan to build something that would enable the company to give back in such a way that they knew where every dollar was going and to support a cause they understood—seniors.

Then a board member of the Institute of Gerontology, Watchowski made arrangements for a third of the foundation money to be dedicated to help this branch of the Wayne State University Medical and Nursing School to make progress in critical areas of aging such as homelessness, depression, disability, Alzheimer’s disease and hypertension.

Today, American House Foundation raises about $500,000 a year. With one full-time employee, nearly two-thirds of every dollar donated goes toward helping the “unmet needs” of seniors through partnerships with about a dozen non-profits that serve residents in the cities where American House Senior Living Communities does business.

Spotlight on the Problem

“Our foundation has opened up eyes to the needs of the senior population, which I think is sometimes forgotten about,” said Gilette. “Forty-five percent of seniors are in economic jeopardy and 15 percent are considered impoverished.”

To that end, many of the non-profits, Gilette explains, are given “block grants” of $5,000 or $10,000 that can then be spent on items like home repairs. A typical beneficiary might be a 90-year-old woman living in an urban setting whose water heater has gone out and she has not had a hot bath or shower in many weeks. “The American House foundation could replace that water heater probably with about 24-hours-notice,” he explained. “It might only be $600 or $700, but it might as well be a million dollars if you don’t have the resources.”

The foundation has paid for lots of home repairs, washers and dryers, wheelchair ramps, transportation to cancer treatments, medication, medical equipment, food, and even dentures. Although Medicaid will pay to have teeth extracted if you have disease, Gilette explains, it won’t pay for to have dentures fitted. So the foundation has been able to help fill that need through a partnership with the University of Detroit.

A strong undercurrent of the foundation is the idea that, while the seniors the foundation helps cannot and are highly unlikely to ever be able to afford to live in American House properties, the foundation can help them to maintain some dignity and continue to live independently, Gilette and Watchowski say.

American Senior Living Communities employees and residents pack bags of gifts and essentials for needy seniors. Photo courtesy of American Senior Living Communities

None of the money raised by the foundation is used to support the elderly residents of American House Senior Living Communities properties, which total about 60 and are located in the Midwest, Florida and the Northeast. The company has historically owned all of them with REDICO, its affiliated commercial real estate investment and development company.

Money to support the foundation is derived from two annual fundraisers as well as lots of smaller fundraising efforts, including chili cookoffs, car shows and spaghetti dinners. The largest number of dollars are raised at the foundation’s Celebration of Dignity and Hope, a casual cocktail reception in May attended by roughly 300 American House vendors and friends deemed to be “generous” and “passionate or compassionate about seniors issues,” Gilette said.

The second event, called Holiday Hope for Seniors, raises smaller $5 and $10 donations through employees and American House residents and others. The money is then used to fill 4,000 bags with small gifts and household essentials that are hand packed and distributed by the company’s employees to about 2,000 seniors in the communities where the company does business.

Although the bags may only have $10 worth of items, Gilette maintains that they serve a more important purpose. “They are the vehicle by which we get in front of these people,” he said. Sometimes the recipients simply accept the bags and say ‘thank you’ or ask the deliverer to leave the bag on the porch. But a large number of these seniors, who have been identified as being in need, are shut-ins, he explains.

“They’re typically a widow or widower, who have in many cases not spoken to anybody meaningfully in many, many days. So oftentimes the delivery of the bag is the vehicle by which you can actually spend time with these people who are very lonely and have problems,” he says.

Delivering the bags also helps American House and REDICO executives and employees better understand the issues facing the demographic they serve. For instance, Gilette recalls one story of a REDICO executive who set out to deliver a bag in a dilapidated area of Detroit by the airport.

An elderly man opened the door and invited the REDICO inside. Over the next hour, the executive was humbled as he learned that the elderly gentleman had just lost his wife of 60 years two weeks earlier and the executive was the first person the man had spoken with since the loss. The experience was life-changing for the executive, who simply sat and listened, Watchovski says.  

“Writing the checks and making the donation are super important,” Gilette maintained. “You can’t do it without the money, but if you really want the impact and you really want to understand it, you have to put the time in. You have to get involved. Time is the real asset.”