By Jack Cumming

A routine senior living interview grabbed my attention. “I think calling things ‘senior living’ is a double mistake. First of all, we know that boomers don’t like the word ‘senior.’” The statement was direct. It was a call to action. What would senior living be if it isn’t what it purports to be?

Ken Dychtwald

Steve Moran was interviewing Ken Dychtwald on Foresight TV. Mr. Dychtwald is a prolific author and host of the PBS program, “Life’s Third Age.” It’s an interview to which operators should pay thoughtful attention. Mr. Dychtwald continued his questioning of “senior” living. “You use the word a lot.  I’ve used it a lot. It’s obsolete. The other thing is that it’s not one thing. I think partly it confuses people [as they wonder] is that where everybody’s dying of COVID or is it the place where you can play golf and tennis and have a lot of fun.”

This was not a rebranding/re-messaging suggestion. Most of those, to quote a bit of folklore, are putting lipstick on a pig. The proposal was to end age-segregated housing. That involves substance. And dropping “senior” would be more than mere PR spin. There’s no reason why general market housing can’t be age-friendly and age-welcoming.

Industry Strengths

There’s opportunity for senior living operators with experience in meeting needs both for hassle-reducing amenities – meals, maintenance, and more – and for excellence in care services. These are needs and services which appeal not only to older people but also to those with children or with the challenges of midlife.

It’s only natural for people to want to be proud of where they live. The word “senior” in senior living does not make the industry’s offerings attractive. Many, who now live in senior housing, remember how their friends recoiled when they told them where they were moving. The idea of moving to the residence where you plan to die is off-putting for some.

It’s not uncommon for the general public, including prospects for communal living, to imagine all senior living as no more than assisted living with nursing care. The publicity surrounding COVID-19 has not helped. Moving from a senior housing focus to a broader concept with an aging services specialty can obviously expand the market and improve occupancy. That’s particularly true if Ken Dychtwald is right when he says that the emerging generation of residents don’t want the same product that the industry has offered their parents over the last forty years or so.

Aging into the Future

Living choices for the future may well be more multi-generational. We feel comfortable with friends our own age but mingling with those younger can keep us relevant. Ken Dychtwald tells us that, at age 70, he is finding the upkeep of a home a bit of a burden, which makes him and his wife think of where they might be happy aging. It’s not, though, in today’s senior living residence.

Mr. Dychtwald is an academic with a Ph.D. so it’s not surprising that he’s drawn to the life of the mind. He tells us, “I’m waiting for some developer to go find a big piece of land next to a university. I don’t want to be on the campus because I think it’s so hard to work with campuses to do that but you see a lot of off-campus housing. My dream is that on one side they build a high-rise student housing, then they have a core where they have dining and activities, maybe a mentoring center, and on the other side, you have senior living. Thus, there’s a separation, and when you want to go to bed early you can do that. But if you want to come out and hang out with the kids even at two o’clock in the morning at their party, you can do that as well.” While I doubt that those kids would welcome a 70-year-old at their party, it’s only natural to dream of being young again.

The times are changing and changing rapidly. We all know that. We all feel the change that is in the works. COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of change. The senior living industry showed its adaptability in meeting the challenge though most of the media piled onto the negativity that already beset operators. Better than claiming victimization, it can be more constructive to shift from traditional senior living to more inclusive Better Living. Some entrepreneurial organizations like Matt Thornhill’s Cozy Home Community business and Real Estate Equities Development, LLC’s Village Cooperative initiative are leading into the future. Beaumont in Bryn Mawr, PA is already well along that path.

Staying Relevant

The easiest way to stay relevant and retain or improve occupancy is to rethink existing communities in line with the developing market. That’s simply commonsense. Some developers/advisors are beginning to show operators how to accomplish that change. Ryan Frederick, for instance, of Smart Living 360 comes immediately to mind. One of the most promising changes is that pioneered by Juniper Communities’ Lynne Katzmann who has integrated Medicare Advantage primary care, with a geriatric focus, into her portfolio. So far, the more traditional advisors seem slow to foresee change, though they, too, are beginning to look toward the future.

Here are some bold ideas to start the strategic conversations that boards should and can be having with the executive management team:

  1. Eliminate age requirements to open residence to the larger market of people who want the convenience of communal living bundled with dining, maintenance, and other amenities.
  2. Give worker compensation the same attention that boards give to executive compensation, increasing wages and perks while improving worker productivity to make Better Living competitive with other employment opportunities.
  3. Consider converting nonprofits to an investor corporate business model to gain the benefits of equity financing and greater corporate flexibility.
  4. Consider the market value of offering residents the option of an ownership share in the corporate entity, combined with a proprietary lease for their home unit.
  5. Restore independent living by requiring entering residents to be able to walk unaided up a flight of stairs and to demonstrate cognition, say, with the Montreal Cognitive Assessment.

Now Is the Time

There will never be a better time than now to take a bold fresh look at what “senior” living has been and has become and what it can be for the future. Bold action responds to the preferences of the boomers and can begin to rebuild cachet and market share for communal living after a decade of declining market acceptance.

Most of today’s residents are too old to benefit from change, but today’s board members and executives can create, or repurpose, their enterprise for how they would want to live now and for the foreseeable future. All it takes is the foresight to begin now to build that Better Living Tomorrow.

Click here for the Ken Dychtwald interview. Click here for Cozy Home Communities. Click here for Village Cooperative. Click here for Beaumont in Bryn Mawr. Click here for Lynne Katzmann speaking about Medicare Advantage.

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