Baby Boomers want their preferences. They’re used to getting what they want, and they’re not going to settle for the status quo.

By Pam McDonald

The following is an edited version of a Senior Housing Forum podcast interview with Nancy Schier Anzelmo conducted by Pam McDonald, the podcast producer and co-host. You can listen to the full podcast HERE.

Throughout her 20-plus-year career, gerontologist and dementia care expert Nancy Schier Anzelmo has helped senior living providers across the nation offer exceptional programs, especially those that are less institutional and more personalized.

Now, and over the next 20 years, Baby Boomers are becoming the predominant prospect for senior living. So, answering the question — what will Boomers want — is imperative for developers, owners, and industry leaders. Nancy is working with them to get this right.

I had a chance to speak with her recently just days after she’d attended one of Elton John’s Farewell Tour performances where the audience was largely Boomers. Here’s some of what she had to say:

NANCY: So, let me just tell you something about the Elton John Concert. I would say the average age was late sixties, seventies. I’m walking around looking at the people and it hits me, this is our cohort for senior housing. They listen to rock ‘n roll. Just to see it makes it even more powerful.

This is more reason for person-centered care. These people are individual. We can’t just lump them all together; that all World War II people are the same as the Silent Generation. The Boomers are so individualized. They have changed everything – from the schools to the colleges to everything. Why can’t they change senior housing?

When you see the real customers . . . five more people are at home than in assisted living and then you think, we’re still doing fricking Bingo. We still don’t know anything about these people. How can we be successful? Because these are the folks coming through and they’re just not going to settle for what their parents had or their grandparents, at this point.

As people are aging, we need to create a product for a new cohort and a new generation. We need to think about how individualized the Boomers are. They have really changed the course of American history from day one since they started — Boomer cohort 1 and 2 because there’s a division between them.

They want their preferences. They’re used to getting what they want. They fight for what they want and they’re not going to settle for the status quo. So, what I believe is when we move forward into the future of providing services for these individuals what is paramount for success is providing a good day, meaningful engagement activities, and a lifestyle that promotes having a purposeful day.

This generation likes purpose. They’re hard working. They are still working, many of them. And they don’t want to just sit around. This is a different group, so we have to have engaging programs that make them feel that they’re giving back, that they are useful to society, that they are making a difference.

PAM: The Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. What’s the event that divides this cohort?

NANCY: They’re divided by the Vietnam War. So, there’s the Boomer 1 cohort and Boomer 2, demographically. The Boomer 1s are much more demanding. They were children out of the 50s and more compliant. Then they started fighting back. So, we had Kent State and Woodstock and all that. Of course, that’s stereotypical, not all Boomers are like that.

The Boomer 2s, those are the ones that are the Yuppies. They came to power in the 80s, if you will, so they’re characterized as much more materialistic as a cohort. They are much more driven by all the things they have to do to maintain their identity. You know, ‘I have three jobs, I drive a Beamer, I want . . . whatever the thing is. It’s part of their identity.

The first cohort, those Boomers already are coming to senior living. They look to have much more traditional values at first and then it starts to ramp up. Okay, we might have a little bit of leeway, but we’re going into 2020 and we really are going to have to think about the longevity of the senior housing industry and making it a desirable product.

We have the Jimmy Buffett’s homes; he can’t even build them fast enough because Boomer 1s identify with Buffet Heads, so to speak, and what they like. That’s the individuality I’m talking about. We need to be more decisive in the way we attract a very diverse group.

PAM: I’ve seen lots of discussions already about whether the Boomers will buy senior living and what developers and operators might have to change to attract them. Nancy, what do you think will change? Will change need to be structural or cultural?

NANCY: It’s both. For instance, the trend for private rooms and larger rooms. They have affordability issues, but they still want a private room. So that takes a structural approach. Having dining options that are all the time like you’re in a resort as opposed to three squares a day. So, there’s operational issues as well as structural.

Having wellness, wellness and fitness is the number one focus for Boomers. They’re fighting aging all the way. So, we need to provide programs and healthy aging activities that support wellness. This generation is about it more than anyone else so that’s an amenity that we have to have.

We have to have Internet period. We can’t go into old buildings with no Wi-Fi. These are things that will change structurally as well as the culture since we know the workforce is changing and these are their parents and grandparents. They relate to them a little bit different than when senior housing started in the 90s.

PAM: Have you heard much about the trend to move from wellness to wholeness?

NANCY: Yes, I’ve heard the trend in Gerontology, of course. Because in Gerontology, we’re looking at the whole person. Always. It’s interdisciplinary, not only medical but social too. We’re really social scientists if you will.

The trends show Boomers are changing everything from working to housing to driving cars to dining. You know, there are places in San Francisco being built that aren’t even putting in a kitchen. They’re just giving residents meal passes so they can go to any of the bazillion restaurants around since there’s so much amazing food. How brilliant is that?

That’s what I’m talking about. Changing it up, shaking it up. Whatever was done before. we need to throw it out and look at it again. You know, trends come back around, of course, but I think that with this group it’s going to change, especially with this group with dementia.

PAM: Do you mean the families are not going to settle for it?

NANCY: Even the person; they don’t want to be locked in. They want to feel free. They want choice and opportunity. They don’t want to be told . . . what I see as a practitioner is the younger residents in their sixties and seventies being labeled ‘noncompliant’.

But It’s because we’re infantilizing them or treating them like we’re all going sit down and do this coloring project or something. That’s not what they’re going to do. I think in memory support services, we have to shake it up just as much, if not more.

PAM: Do you think providers can change enough for Boomers? 

NANCY: I think they’re trying, Pam, they just don’t know the tricks. It’s very simple. I think sometimes people overthink it. They do a lot of philosophy and flowing words when it’s really about getting the staff to know the resident, the person. Really simple.

That’s it. If you do that, you’re like 50% there. Then we can get all the other things: choices for dining, programs, sleeping, showering and all of that. But only if they know the person.

Typically, our staff doesn’t. We don’t spend enough time educating them about the person they’re caring for. When I ask them how they find out about a resident, they say they find out over time, or they ask the resident and family. We didn’t give them the tools they need to be successful in what we’re expecting them to do. It’s not all the time; a lot of providers are doing it well.