How Older Communities Can Continue to Compete Successfully

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Many of our retirement communities are 20 years old or more. They benefit from an established reputation in their market and may even have enjoyed residents of more than one family generation. But as new communities are developed, offering updated residential units and contemporary amenities, how do older communities continue to compete successfully? Knowing how your community is positioned and perceived in the market is essential to continued success in the future. There are several steps that can be taken short of completing a full market study that will provide the needed information.

Conducting surveys of competitors is essential and visiting the major competitors is part of that process. It isn’t enough to call them to gather information. In addition, carefully reviewing their brochures and websites is an important step in identifying not only what they offer but how they position themselves. Other tasks that can provide valuable information include telephone surveys with lost prospects and recent movers. Lost prospects would be defined by someone who had actually visited your community, not just called for a brochure. Lost prospects should be assured of their anonymity, allowing them to speak freely about what they liked, what they didn’t like and why they decided not to move to your community. Recent movers can tell you what other properties they considered and the reasons why they did move to your community.

This kind of feedback can inform your decisions on what needs to be done to remain competitive in your market and is extremely useful as your leadership team plans for the future.

Contributions By Older Adults

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Happily, it is getting much more difficult to write off older adults in terms of what they continue to contribute to society. At a recent ASHA meeting we discussed how important it is to ask residents what it is that they still want to accomplish in their lives. A number of years ago, a friend in the industry told me that when a new resident moved to his community that was one of the first questions he asked of them as he got to know them. An older gentleman responded “well, I always wanted to be a teacher, but I had to do something else to make more money for my family”. That prompted my friend to go over to the local high school to see if they needed any tutors or mentors and the response was an enthusiastic “yes”! So shortly after that, the resident found himself spending time with students at that school. Also, all you have to do is look at the world of the arts to see further examples. Writers such as Joyce Carol Oates and James Salter continued to publish novels in later life. In fact, Salter’s last novel was published at the age of 88, just two years before he passed away. And no one can convince me that Mick Jagger has lost his “mojo”. Just take a look at the film of his latest concert tour in Cuba which attracted nearly a half-million fans!

The Psychology of Language

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It is important to integrate the belief that seniors or older adults are not “the other” or “them” – they are us. How this segment of the population is portrayed is directly influenced by the words that we use to describe it. After all, older adults are rapidly becoming the largest market segment in society and will possess the most purchasing power of any demographic group according to a task force at the International Longevity Center in New York. So it’s important that we “watch our language” when advertising products and services, not to mention just talking to older folks.

We still suffer from the use of condescending language when it comes to the aging process. Using terms like “the old” or “the elderly”, homogenizes a widely varied and diverse segment of the population. And language can fan fear with terms that sound apocalyptic like “gray tsunami”, “demographic time bomb” and “age quake”. Euphemisms like “golden age”, “umpteen years young”, “you haven’t changed” or “you don’t look it” are also ways to devalue people who have simply grown older, as we all hope to do. Another term that I think is offensive is calling someone who is older “eccentric”. What does that mean? And then there is the cosmetic industry using terms for anti-aging products like “advanced night repair” as if something is broken, or “mature skin corrector” as if aging is a mistake.

Take it from an “old” English major. We have a lot of work to do!

Skilled Nursing Fights Back

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In the past few years, we’ve been discussing the impact of changes in the healthcare system on the skilled nursing market. It seems others have too. Since last year, NIC, Ziegler and Senior Housing News have released excellent reports about the fate of skilled nursing beds, particularly those that are stand alone. As a result of declining occupancy and revenue across the country (NIC Skilled Nursing Data Report/Ziegler Post-Acute Activity CFO Hotline), the number of skilled beds is being reduced and some facilities are closing. At the same time, skilled nursing services are being provided at other levels of care, where possible, such as assisted living. Rehab discharges from hospital to home are bypassing skilled nursing facilities altogether.

Some skilled nursing providers are fighting back by investing in technology to improve the quality and efficacy of care; partnering with hospitals to improve referrals; and adding ancillary services (such as therapies, home healthcare and hospice) to spread financial risk. The renovation and redesign of nursing facilities is also occurring, particularly in CCRCs, now thriving according to Senior Housing News (CCRCs Gain Luster as Standalone SNFs Fade). Flexible architectural design will decrease costs as the need for nursing beds changes and the development of households will increase nursing facility attractiveness. CCRCs are at an advantage today due to a renewed emphasis on a continuum of care. Their residents will benefit from the services connected with skilled nursing such as physical therapy and nursing oversight even when residing in independent or assisted living.

At Brecht we are excited about the future for our CCRC clients. As new ways to configure assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing and hospice are created, Boomers will be drawn to campuses that provide quality aging services in non-traditional ways.

Susan Brecht moderating The Impact of Market Studies on New Development at Interface Conference, November 2017

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The Interface Seniors Housing Northeast Conference, held in Philadelphia on November 8th, included a dynamic session called “Getting Good Data: The Impact of Market Studies on New Development and How Projects are Underwritten”. The panelists included Rob Schiller from LCB Senior Living, Lana Peck from the NIC, and two more institutional players, Brian Sunday from AEW and Zach Bowyer from CBRE Valuation & Advisory Services. I moderated the panel, frequently inserting my own thoughts on the various topics we addressed. Some of the takeaways from this panel included the following:

  • Penetration rates are predicted to climb as interest in moving to senior housing communities increases. The level of education of a market influences acceptable penetration rates.
  • Consumer research is an important element that complements market feasibility studies.
  • We need to be more proactive as an industry about promoting the value and benefit of moving to a senior housing option before people are too frail to enjoy the environment.
  • Some suggested building new communities in markets where there is a lot of old product.
  • There are opportunities in “B” markets where there is less competition.

This session was very well attended and the audience responded enthusiastically. If you would like to hear our entire session, please click play on the audio file above.

It’s the Learning Season

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Fall conference season is here and I kicked it off by attending the Ziegler Senior Living Finance & Strategy Conference earlier this month. As always, the content was terrific and I particularly enjoyed the panel on “middle markets” and the architect’s panel. Among other things, the architects talked about how to make less space look and function like more space. Speaking of learning, I’ll be presenting in a session on The Psychology of Language at Leading Age in New Orleans later this month (Oct 31, session 64E) focusing on the subtle ways that ageism is part of everyday life. On November 8, Brecht Associates is a sponsor of the 2nd Annual Interface Seniors Housing Northeast conference. I’ll be leading a panel discussing Market Opportunities: The Outlook for Seniors Housing Development. I’d love to meet you at the Leading Age Conference. If you want to get together, contact me at 

Milestone Market Study Engagement

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We recently signed a proposal for our 1,000th engagement to do a market study for Horst SeniorCare.  Not only are we proud of that, but we feel it is particularly significant that this is not our 1,000th client. Like Horst, this number reflects the fact that so many of our clients return to us whenever they need our consulting services.

Over the last 25+ years, many communities that we have done studies for have been built and have thus enriched the lives of countless seniors and their families.  The longevity of our staff is also something I’m proud of.  In fact, one person has been with me so long that she can pass as a prospective resident when she visits competitive communities!

In related news, we congratulate our client Douglas Wilson Companies on breaking ground on their first senior housing community.  Otay Ranch Senior Living is being developed in San Diego County’s Otay Ranch region and will include 80 assisted living units and 24 memory care units.  The project broke ground in June of this year and is slated for completion in mid-2018.

Urban vs. Suburban? How About Both!

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Senior housing trends watchers are increasingly enamored with the growth of urban housing offerings for people 65 and better. These new developments are making the most of two important things: 1. Retrofitting old buildings and building new ones with contemporary design features and 2. Making the most of the surrounding urban amenities.


Brecht Associates began in 1990. At that time there was an eagerness to move out to the suburbs and for the most part, that’s where Life Plan communities grew. However, Boomers were living in urban centers, infusing themselves with lively and diverse arts, cultural and social scenes. In fact many of today’s retirees were the people in positions of leadership making cities the vibrant places they are now.


This may explain the current renaissance in our urban core, with people of all ages wanting to live in cities once more.


The truth is that people will continue to live in both environments and the industry will benefit from having a broad, long-range view about the appeal of different locales. Life Plan community operators must make the most of their surroundings, whether urban, suburban or rural and highlight their connection to the community at large.


Speaking of urban communities, I recently had the pleasure of addressing the Mary Wade board of directors in downtown New Haven. This is an extraordinary community that has served the low income residents of New Haven well. They now aim to broaden their appeal with a proposed market rate assisted living building. My presentation included current trends that will help Mary Wade continue to serve their community and attract more residents to their downtown location.


Finally, we are delighted that Sandi Fein was elected Chair of the Board of Trustees at the Deborah Heart and Lung Center. Sandi Fein has been an active associate with Brecht Associates, Inc. for more than 25 years. As a member of the Brecht consulting team, Sandi has conducted numerous market feasibility studies, and she continues to serve as a consultant specializing in qualitative interviewing on behalf of clients.   She is currently a member of the Quality of Care and Community Health Advocacy Committee of the Deborah Hospital Trustees. Sandi is enthusiastic about the opportunity to lead the Trustees and help guide the organization in continuing to fulfill its’ mission of life-saving service to the community.

Language and Ageism

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Despite the incredible growth in older demographic age groups, especially the cohort of people age 65 to 74, we still suffer from the use of condescending language when it comes to the aging process. I know I cringe when someone in a store calls me “dear”. I’m not their “dear” and the use of that word is patronizing at best.

I recently saw an ad for Ford, the largest American car maker. It portrayed a woman probably in her mid to late 40s talking on the phone to her mother saying “WiFi– it’s not a question, mom, it’s a thing”. Apparently nobody told her that WiFi has become a “must have” in retirement communities around the country. I know I’m not the only one that felt this was incredibly condescending and I made a mental note to drop Ford from my list of possible car manufacturers for my next purchase. The purchasing power of those of us who technically qualify as “seniors” (another word I don’t like much) is enormous. Older adults are rapidly becoming the largest market segment in society and will possess the most purchasing power of any demographic, according to a task force at the International Longevity Center in New York. So it’s time for all of us in day-to-day conversations, in marketing campaigns, and generally as we interact with older Americans to “watch our language”. Get the picture?

I’ll be making a presentation on the psychology of aging at the Leading Age Conference in New Orleans being held October 29 through November 1. Hope you’ll attend.

Helping Hands Across The Water

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Every July 4th weekend, Bob and I help out at the Feed the Need fundraiser at our area yacht club in Pine Beach, New Jersey. The event features a sailing regatta powered by local children who race each other down and back along the Toms River. Over one hundred little skippers take to the water that day from communities all over the area. Its lots of fun for so many reasons, not the least of which is that we raise a tremendous amount of money for the local food bank.

This year, I had the pleasure of manning the registration table with a lively 8 year old named Vivien who handed out the tee-shirts to all the sailors. Working alongside this smart and caring youngster all day long was at times funny and exhausting! I’m so glad I could keep up!

My intergenerational experience reminds me that we can and do work side by side with each other no matter what our age, especially in service to others. We may find it rewarding and sometimes challenging, but we are always ready to lend a hand when needed.

As we remember all those that served this country on this Independence Day, I say hoorah for all those seniors who continue to pitch in whether at home or in a retirement community and congratulate them on their vitality and desire to stay connected to others.