Avoiding the “I’m Not Ready Yet” Reaction to Senior Housing

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I have been involved in the senior housing industry for well over 30 years. There are two expressions from consumers that I’ve heard throughout those decades. The first is “I’m Not Ready Yet”. This reflects the belief that you have to be old and frail to move to senior housing. And we’ve created that impression in some ways, including the term “continuing care retirement communities”. The word “care” is a clear signal that you need care, so why move there if you don’t! Leading Age has addressed that by relabeling these communities “Life Plan Communities” which puts the consumer in charge. A much needed modification. But there is more to it than a name change. An increasing number of communities are learning that they can offer residents opportunities to do things they have always wanted to do, but never found the time. My sister-in-law who I wrote about in my last blog is a great example. After I published the blog and shared it with her she wrote to me and said “I forgot to mention one really important thing – opportunities!” She is in the choir, performing comedy routines and to use her word, having a “blast”! This is an important message that may not be presented in marketing communications and positioning. Delivering this message can help shift the perception of retirement communities. It starts with the website and should be reinforced by other collateral materials. And staff training is key. It may feel like you are turning the course of a major vessel that is steaming ahead in a tried and true direction, but I think it’s worth it! With success, more and more residents will utter the other expression I mentioned at the beginning of this blog “Why did I wait so long”!

It’s the Best Thing We’ve Ever Done!

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I admit that I have a personal connection to the couple I’m writing about in this blog, but I think their story is a great illustration of making decisions to move to senior housing. My sister-in-law and her husband live in a Life Plan Community in the Philadelphia suburbs. They actually began thinking about this move when they were in their mid-60’s/early 70’s. They are eight years apart in their ages.

They spent 10 happy and healthy years living in what had been their second home at the Jersey shore. But recognizing that they couldn’t assume they would remain healthy they began the search for their next move. They did their research and narrowed the search down to three Life Plan communities. Two were under the same non-profit ownership and the third was too far away and way too expensive. So they visited the other two. One was ruled out for some very practical reasons: very narrow hallways, smaller apartments, an unattractive through-the-wall h/vac system and the fact that reaching the dining room and other common amenities required a walk outside!

Their ultimate choice was a community closest to their son (who they gave the shore house to so the family could still enjoy time together). It also had the advantage of being close to plenty of shopping. When they visited this community they had a very positive experience. First they attended a general meeting for future prospective residents in the auditorium where the sales rep gave a speech and answered questions. A lovely luncheon was followed by a tour of vacant apartments given by a resident of the community. They moved when she was 74 and her husband 82. And she says with great joy “it’s the best thing we’ve ever done”!

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 susanb@brechtassociates.com. 

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.