By Jack Cumming

Not long ago I wrote that “Residents should never be a burden.” That prompted a friend of mine to quip, “What about those residents who are a burden?” My friend was thinking of demanding new residents and of failing older residents in nursing or memory care. I agreed that they can be a challenge. My friend was thinking as a caregiver. I was thinking as a resident citizen called to participate in governance, even corporate governance.

Yes, there are challenges. Any business faces challenges. One purpose of business is to address or mitigate those challenges. Even challenging customers generate revenue, and everyone who has ever started a business remembers clearly that first payment from the first customer. That early customer may have been a challenge. But wasn’t it refreshing that you were able to meet that challenge and to go on to thrive?

Lessons from Senior Centers

Senior living focuses strongly on selling, sometimes wrapped in a marketing comfort blanket. Senior Centers, in contrast, don’t have a marketing department. Typically, a person who is interested in membership walks into the Senior Center and goes to the desk for information. Those at the desk are often members themselves. Not all Senior Centers have membership organizations, but when they do the memberships sell themselves. People apply for membership. They don’t have to be sold.

Imagine how much easier it would be if people were that eager to move to senior living. It would be difficult to maintain age thresholds, as younger people would want the same living advantages that senior living now provides. Many senior centers have morphed into community centers serving all ages and meeting the needs of the entire community. The combined senior and community center in Baldwin Park, CA is a wonderful example of how intergenerational services contribute to the well-being of those included. Senior living operators can wisely learn from senior centers.

My own experience, however, has been with two age-demarcated senior centers. One is in Culver City, CA which is directed by an active membership board of directors, and the other in Carlsbad, CA which is staff run with senior volunteers. In Culver City, there is an independent “Senior Citizens Association” guiding the senior center and supported by city staff. Carlsbad has a five-member “Senior Commission” to advise and support staff.

There are important differences, which may be related to these governance distinctions. The Culver City Senior Center is open 365 days a year so that no one is alone without a refuge on major holidays. The Culver City Lions Club serves a holiday meal at which all seniors are welcome. The Carlsbad Senior Center is closed on holidays when city workers are off. The agenda for Culver City board meetings is prepared by the membership’s elected leaders. The agenda for the Carlsbad Senior Commission is prepared by staff.

These differences may seem familiar to senior living operators who have similarly different forms of organization and different approaches to mission. Culver City’s senior center has over 5,000 dues-paying members; the utilization of the Carlsbad senior center is estimated at 2,000 citizens. Culver City is smaller than Carlsbad, with a population of roughly 40% of that in Carlsbad, but it is located in a more densely populated area. Marketing for both is word-of-mouth, though my experience is that the membership model in Culver City builds participant loyalty and enthusiasm. It also involves controversy . . . no surprise. As John Gonzales, a senior living consultant, has put it, “the best marketing program equals pent up demand.”

Changing Face of Government

Of course, Senior Centers are government-funded. Recently, it has seemed like there is no end to government funds as we indulge as a nation in deficit spending. The Biden administration has put in place a $1.9 trillion recovery plan and is proposing an additional $3.0 trillion infrastructure program.  More recently, the latter program has a $2.0 trillion price tag.  Others think it will cost $4.0 trillion.  We’ll stick with the original estimate from while it was in development. Cynics might quip, “What’s a trillion plus-or-minus when we’re talking infrastructure.”  In our analysis, though we’re overlooking the earlier Trump-era plan, the CARES Act, so the order of magnitude of these spending programs by any measure remains upwards from $5.0 trillion.

With a total economic output (gross domestic product) of roughly $22.0 Trillion, those two programs will provide an order of magnitude money jolt of over 22% of GDP. Of course, that may devalue the currency or raise prices. Both programs are heavily skewed toward benefitting the workaday people who staff senior living. That means that the impact of either economic outcome, devaluation or inflation, will likely be to transfer wealth from higher-earning, rich people toward lower income, poor people. That will constitute a social revolution comparable to the New Deal of the 1930s or the GI Bill after World War II.

The business counterpart of these cultural changes is the evolution of networked organizations supplanting traditional multi-layered enterprises. The position of residents within traditional senior living companies has been ambiguous. Bringing residents fully into inclusive business cultures can make senior living more attractive for prospects.

New Business Cultures

What can we take away from these developments to improve senior living? To begin with, more open, interactive relationships are evolving from the traditional centrally directed structures of the past. The traditional business was organized like the military, with command at the top and execution at the frontline with an intermediate chain of command. Newer organizations are more caring and more frontline-worker empowering to improve mission fulfillment.

This is a cultural change that is transforming not only senior living but our American culture as well. The democratic principles that have guided American culture have long been a beacon for social mobility throughout the world. America is the Land of Opportunity where anyone can rise from poverty to find the life of which others dream. This vision is more important for senior living than for any other industry. Senior living at its best provides the platform to allow older people to thrive and to feel good about themselves. A relationship approach that includes residents as full-fledged members of the organization will fulfill the dream of an age-empowering America.

Change now is much faster-paced than it was mere decades ago. Rapid adaptability and innovation are essential for all businesses, particularly for senior living. Eliminating redundant approval layers can foster communities of residents and staff together helping to make senior living affordable and fulfilling.

The New Generation

These changes coincide with the arrival of a new generation of prospects with dramatically different expectations for senior living. The extended period of vitality longevity, a gift of medical research, raises the expectation that people will continue to be valued, productive, and treated with respect well into their 80s and, for many, beyond that.

This evolving cultural change is not new. But the industry has persisted in thinking primarily of care concerns even as relationship and enrichment have risen in their importance for prospects and residents. The pandemic shows that now is the time for change. This calls for a new mindset about the fundamental premises for senior living. Residents and frontline workers can come together to create better living for everyone. Not allowing that collaboration to flourish is ageist, and the industry is dead set against ageism.

No one should have to feel ashamed to have moved into senior living. What is humanly possible for the board, executives, and staff is equally humanly possible for residents if they are invited to the decision table. When enterprise interests are elevated above mission, it’s the residents who are diminished. Executive Directors should think of themselves as Mission Servants. Their purpose is to serve more than to command.

The social revolution that is now underway will give us a better, more affordable senior living industry. Residents are not a burden. They are the reason for senior living. They should be full partners, members in our mission of making life fulfilling for as long as people have breath.