Aside from the fact that “the new normal” is now such an overused phrase, what else can we say about it.? Normal is defined as “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected”. Is that really what we want to aspire to in all aspects of the senior living field? It seems to me that it is a minimum standard and that we should all strive to exceed the minimum. From a provider’s perspective, the minimum will not help you stand out among your competition. It’s a baseline which operators should seek to exceed in as many ways as possible. Average food quality won’t cause residents to want to use the dining rooms. Average amenities are the least one might expect. Using tried and true (formerly) approaches to attracting the interest of prospects may not get them in your door – physically or virtually. As market feasibility consultants, we must always evaluate how we are assessing the market for our clients. Are we doing everything we can to properly define the market area for a new development? Are we using all available resources to identify both existing and new or planned competitors? Are we making reasonable assumptions to size the target market and factor in the impact of competition? After more than 30 years as a leading firm in conducting market studies, I can safely say that seeking to go beyond “normal” has often led me to re-evaluate my approach to my work and achieve breakthroughs that increased the reliability of the results.
A lot of time has been spent thinking about what the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) will be looking for when its time for them to downsize. When you consider the range that comprises the Boomer generation it includes people age 57 to 74 so we can’t really think about them as a single age cohort. Planning for the preferences of early Boomers may be starting now, although the average age of move-in to independent living is early 80’s! As an early Boomer myself, I’m not sure I can accurately tell you what I’ll be looking for (if anything). Maybe one the way to approach it is to talk about what we early Boomers won’t be looking for. Highly structured activities and programs that aren’t based on our input would be one thing. We are opinionated and we expect our thoughts to be solicited and given serious consideration. So, flexibility will be key and we are already seeing that in numerous retirement communities that offer various choices in meal plans, for example. Another way to look at it is what we would find attractive. Properties that don’t stand out saying WE’RE FOR OLD PEOPLE! That suggests including senior housing in mixed use communities, bringing people of various ages together, co-existing with commercial amenities such as restaurants, movie theaters, book stores, and other retail uses. More communities located in urbanized, walkable environments will be desirable. It will be important to create opportunities for Boomers to continue to contribute to the community around them, rather than leaving them feeling isolated in a single building or a senior housing campus. Let us help you plan for our future!
When we ask senior housing team members who they are competing with, inevitably the response includes other communities offering the same or similar services. Continuums mention continuums, assisted living communities refer to other assisted living communities. But that may be a narrow view, particularly as we begin the generational change to boomers. For those who had older family members residing in an age-restricted community like the ones mentioned above, if the experience was a positive one, they may lean towards making a similar choice. But for the majority of seniors, that influencer probably doesn’t exist. And the choices have expanded considerably. Of course, there is the active adult community (AAC) which tends to serve the younger seniors and may be structured as a for-sale or rental property. This type of community is likely to have excellent fitness facilities and may have some social gathering spaces, but won’t offer meals, housekeeping and the other services found in traditional senior housing communities such as Life Plan and those that limit their services to assisted living/and or memory care. And then there is the most unexpected “competitor” – the non-age-restricted apartment building. While the latter doesn’t offer any services, they are likely to have amenities such as a fitness center or may have leased space to a coffee shop or restaurant serving light fare. Many of these communities are located in urban areas where walkability to a wide variety of amenities is part of the attraction. So, it pays for you to become familiar with all the options – both traditional and non-traditional.
According to the current issue of the NIC Investment Guide, “more than 32% of the property inventory in the NIC MAP Primary Markets is at least 25 years old while only 25% of the stock is less than 10 years old”. This suggests that it is time to begin planning how to reposition these older communities. How does the leadership go about the process of evaluating the ways to make potential changes? The first step is to take a careful inventory of what the community offers including unit sizes for independent and assisted living and even memory care. And then, with the help of an experienced market research firm, gather and compare this information to what the newer properties in your market have to offer. With regard to nursing care, if that is part of the mix, take a look at how many semi-private rooms vs. private rooms are available. We know that the industry is moving to private nursing home rooms. Another step is to evaluate the types of amenity spaces that are offered and, again, compare this to your newer competition. It will be necessary to retain an architectural firm to assess what is possible in terms of physical changes to the property. And once an initial master plan is prepared, the financial feasibility of the proposed changes must be evaluated. Other possible changes would include offering more than one payment plan – say a rental option in a community charging entrance fees, as well as considering a menu of services in independent living vs. a more inclusive program. Taking these steps will result in a fresh look at an older community that should lead to a thoughtful plan that can be implemented to give it new life.
Covid 19 has resulted in the rise in “virtual” formats of communication. It’s happening in everything from personal communications, to visiting and touring retirement communities, to state and national conferences. In the most recent issue of Seniors Housing and Business, the article “What Kinds of Marketing and Outreach are you Doing to Attract New Residents and Increase Move-ins” more than half of those interviewed referred to the fact that they are doing virtual tours. The use of Zoom as a platform for “seeing” the folks you want to meet with is now a standard and can work for very small meetings and larger gatherings as well. During the spring of 2020, State associations transformed their on-site, in person conferences to virtual events and used the virtual platform in sophisticated ways supporting everything from presentations including Q&A, to networking and even “exhibiting”. This is continuing through the fall with the annual NIC Conference and the national Leading Age Conference. Of course, its hardly the same kind of experience, limiting the warmth of personal connections and the spontaneity of “running into” someone you hadn’t anticipated or planned to meet. On the bright side, to the extent there is one, we’re all saving money. No airfares, no hotel costs, no meals and entertainment expenses. And it’s a good time to benefit from these savings. We all long to have things return to “normal” but the creative responses to the shut- down have been outstanding.
Back in the day (and maybe today as well) most senior housing communities had someone with the title of Activity Director. It was the job of that individual to design a program basically to keep residents busy. Things like Bingo, Paint by Number, Sing-Alongs, making decorations, were typically part of an activity program. No doubt, things of this sort (and there is a long list) can be entertaining but will residents of the next generation (and even many in the current generation) appreciate something more? Senior Housing should not be like a moat, separated from the community around it. Undoubtedly, there are opportunities for seniors to volunteer and make a contribution to the larger community. What if the “activity director” identified ways on which residents who wished to engage in outside community and brought these opportunities to the attention of residents? It could begin with the staff member talking to each resident to find out what they would be interested in doing. The next step would be to make connections throughout the community to see if they could match the resident with an organization that would value their involvement. I heard of a great example many years ago when a nursing home administrator asked a resident what he had always wanted to do and never had the chance to pursue this. The answer was, “I wanted to be a teacher but I couldn’t raise my family on that salary”. The administrator visited the local high school and asked a staff member if there might be some students who would like an older mentor. The answer was “yes” and the match was made! Having meaning in your life continues as long as you live.
There are so many benefits to living in a senior housing community. First, let’s just consider the last word in that sentence – “community”. This is the antidote to solitude and loneliness, two factors in the life of many people as they survive into their late 70’s and beyond. Much has been written about the negative impact of loneliness on health – both mental and physical. Senior housing provides the opportunity to meet and make new friends, engage in stimulating activities (no, not bingo!), and continue to learn. Even in this age of Covid 19, we have learned from data published in recent surveys that most people who have been planning a move to senior housing still intend to move. Many decades ago, my mother-in-law moved to a wonderful Life Plan Community in the Pennsylvania suburbs, after her husband had died. She knew people who lived there and actually hosted a reception for a couple who met and married there! Moving to senior housing can represent a new beginning, and shouldn’t be thought of as the beginning of the end.