As the global population ages, there is an increasing need for innovative solutions that cater to the well-being of older adults. In this context, Nectar News had the privilege of interviewing Meredith Oppenheim, the founder of Vitality Society™, an online community that is transforming the way people aged 60 and above can enrich, engage, and empower themselves. Meredith’s extensive experience in the senior housing industry and her commitment to enhancing the lives of older adults have resulted in a transformative platform that has garnered critical acclaim from numerous media outlets. In this interview, Meredith shares her insights on the vital role of prevention in promoting health, the importance of community building for older adults, and the ways in which her innovative platform is changing lives.
Nectar News: Meredith, you do such incredible and important with Vitality Society. When did your passion for working with older people begin?
Meredith Oppenheim: Thank you. I began my work serving older people when I was in high school. I was very close to my grandparents, and their longevity became a priority of mine. I wanted them to be part of my life forever and I knew that if I took good care of them and they took good care of themselves, there was a greater chance that would happen. It was also around a time in my life when some of my friends really were exploring different diets. My mom took me to a cooking demonstration, it was a Jane Brody cooking demonstration when I was in high school. And I was just enamored with this idea of these healthier ingredients that eating better would help you feel better. And I thought that if I could do this for myself, I could also do it for my grandparents. So I started cooking for them, and they loved it. I ultimately started cooking throughout my home state of New Jersey and wrote a cookbook to distribute the recipes with these more novel and healthy ingredients.
I donated all the proceeds to the senior center in my county, Monmouth County, New Jersey. And I was recognized by the US Congress for my work serving generally an underserved and overlooked population of people. And truly, I hadn’t realized the significance of what I was doing because it came so naturally to me to care and want to contribute. But I have realized looking back and certainly now too, that it is often too common for older people to be overlooked and underserved. And it was something I was passionate about then and I still am to this day.
NN: Why do you think it is that older people in this society tend to be overlooked? Because it as you said, the desire to care came naturally to you and I think it does come naturally to us at a young age. So something must be going on that we lose that connection to that natural impulse to care for one another.
MO: Absolutely. When I sat on the New York City Department for Aging Board and Mayor Bloomberg’s age-friendly commission, it was often discussed that aging is an asset and that older people could be tremendous contributors to society in such meaningful ways. When you think about it now, there’s a shortage of teachers, while there are so many retirees, could we bring older people back into the schools as one example? So I think what happens is that life gets really busy. And as a parent now of a pre-teen, I understand.
In many cultures, for example, my husband’s Brazilian and grew up in Brazil. The grandparents, the matriarchs, and the patriarchs of the families tend to live very close by and sometimes in the homes of younger generations. So there’s this central part in one’s life where your grandparent is very present. In this country, as it becomes more modern and urbanized, older people tend to not live with the younger generations. In some socioeconomic levels that’s the case, and yet other socioeconomic levels, you really rely on the grandparents to be the linchpin in the family.
And so it is happening and it does happen, but for many reasons, and I see it now in my more practical life, it is harder to make the time and put in the effort. But in many families and cultures, elders are fixtures and celebrated and the glue to keep the families thriving. And that hasn’t necessarily been the case always here, but hopefully will become increasingly so as people’s lifespans evolve. I know so many of my friends rely on their parents to pitch in and they’re so vitally important. Even if they don’t live close by, they come.
NN: That’s so beautiful. So you were a young entrepreneur. Tell us about your path moving forward to Vitality Society.
MO: I went to Cornell undergrad and I studied social sciences because I was truly interested in this idea of cultures and communities and connections. Then I went on to work in the media industry at Time Warner for a few divisions of the company. And I left after having had a few very entrepreneurial experiences there. Fast forward many years later and I graduated the Harvard Business School, I didn’t know what I wanted to be or what I wanted to do. And I approached one of my professors at the time and she said, Meredith, what do you care about? I said I love working with older people. I was always doing that on the side of any school or work that I was doing for quite some time. And she said, so why don’t you do something in that area? And she asked me to map out all the areas and the touchpoints for older people. I came back to her and I’m like, well, it’s not clothing, it’s not transportation, it’s not food, but it’s going to be senior housing. Because if I get into the industry of senior housing, I have to learn and consider all of those things.
And that was what became very interesting to me, is to see the community of senior housing, these built environments where three meals a day are served, care is delivered, families come to visit, activities, entertainment is part of it, transportation comes in and out of it. It was really just like a microcosm of society and that really interested me. And I felt coupled with the real estate and finance, that they’d be complicated and sufficient enough to keep me busy for a few decades. And so it did and I spent 20 years of my life working with some of the largest owners and operators of senior housing.
But what I came to realize was that only about 10% of older people ever move into senior housing. And what was so startling to me was that what we offer was so wonderful and delightful, just the majority of people wanted to remain home independent. And so I thought to myself, if I’m going to make a valuable contribution to older people, I want to meet them where they’re at and where they want to stay and how they want to be.
I had this moment when my father was very ill and didn’t know quite if he was going to make it, but remarkably and miraculously he has and he’s great. But I looked at my mom and I was like, God forbid something happens to him, she was in her early seventies. I’m like, what am I going to do with you? And she looks at me, she’s like, well, I’m never moving into a senior housing community anytime soon. And I said, why do you say that? She’s like, well, it’s not for me, not right now. And I said, well, what do you want? She’s like, I don’t know, but you’re supposed to be the expert and if you don’t have the answer, you better figure it out because there’s 70 million of us and we’re going to need and want something different than exists.
And that was when I knew that I had to try something different. And I built Vitality Society, taking a page from my Time Warner experiences, how to build a fanatical following, and we wanted to do it around health and well-being and predominantly, ultimately it ended up being for women. So I’m proud to say that thru this business, we’ve really changed people’s lives. We’ve transformed them physically and mentally. And we hear all the time, particularly through COVID, that we’ve been a lifesaver, a lifeline. And I’ve made so many friendships thru Vitality Society and connected and made so many relationships that are so meaningful. People visit each other when they travel, see each other if they live in the same city and they’re feeling physically and mentally better than they ever have. They didn’t know they could feel this well at this age, and that’s very exciting to me.
NN: That’s really amazing. And so for younger generations who have an interest in helping, in connecting with the older people in their life, do you have any advice for that?
MO: Absolutely. I just had a conference call about this. There’s a whole program that’s emerging on brain health, and this woman who’s a real leader in the area is interested in mobilizing the youth to make an impact. So she and I were just brainstorming, how do you reach younger people and inspire them to do this work, hear about this work, and participate in a meaningful way? There are so many remarkable teens and it’s just a matter of engaging with them and educating them on that. This is an area of really tremendous opportunity and one that could be an interesting career.
Going out to the universities, I do a lot of work teaching at Cornell, my undergrad, and teaching classes also at other universities. But really this is an industry that notoriously has, especially now, substantial labor challenges in filling these positions. And so it is so important for the next generation to be informed and interested. There are so many jobs and so many needs and it’s so rewarding to do this work. So it’s just a matter of going to the high schools, going to the colleges, and inspiring the next generation to be interested.
NN: For people who are looking to start a socially impactful company, what advice do you have for them? And were there any challenges that you had to overcome or things that you think people should be aware of?
MO: What’s interesting is, there is a tremendous amount of grant money. But grant money is actually pretty hard to come by in terms of the forms and documents that are required to qualify. And so as a startup founder, often, you’re a small operation with a limitless list of things to do. And so what I’ve decided, is that you don’t actually need that much money to have a substantial impact. And I set out to build Vitality Society with the idea that initially in this early stage, it was much more important to me to have the greatest impact on someone’s life rather than serve the greatest number of people and not impact them in any way. So what I think you have to think about, as a founder of a socially conscious initiative, is what are you striving to accomplish. What can you realistically do? Because being an entrepreneur is chasing these opportunities always with very limited resources and unlimited risks.
To be so true to your purpose and understand it so clearly and then figure out, how you surround yourself with advisors that are invested in the contribution that you’re trying to make? And so I’m proud to say, the company advisors that I have, those that will take my phone call, cheer me on, challenge me, they’re everything I can ask for and more in terms of thinking about this. And at the end of the day, the development of companies takes a lot longer, so be patient but understand.
NN: That’s really wonderful. As a final question, I would love to know what is currently bringing you joy?
MO: I love spending time with my daughter and my husband and my parents, that brings me the greatest joy. My daughter is on the cusp of her teenage years and it can go either way in terms of whether or not she’ll want to spend time with us for very much longer. But at the moment, I’m proud to say we have a beautiful, wonderful relationship. When I started Vitality Society, she was nine years old and now she’s 12. And it’s been a real pleasure for me because I love my mom. My mom is an extraordinary parent and she had a small business of her own. And it started when I was in high school, and my daughter from a very young age has seen me work really hard building this. And so I’m so proud to be the parent of a next-generation executive. To be able to say and show by example that, with hard work, you can make a really big difference not just in the grades that you achieve in school, but also in the world we live in. And so I’m proud and I get a lot of joy spending time with her, she’s a lot of fun.
NN: Meredith thank you so much for spending time speaking with us. We love what you are doing with Vitality Society and look forward to seeing it grow.
To Learn More about Vitality Society: https://www.vitality-society.com/