By Jack Cumming

In a public comment on LinkedIn responding to the challenge of attracting younger residents, Steven Ellsweig writes: “Interesting, but, at 68, I do not see moving to a CCRC in my future. I like family neighborhoods and, having been an AL Executive Director for 19 years, I have learned how isolating an exclusive community can be. Average age, I believe, in CCRCs is 84.”

Mr. Ellsweig’s comment resonated with me since at 68 I was applying to CCRCs and at 70 I moved into one. From having worked in the industry, Mr. Ellsweig is fortunate to know why senior living is unattractive for younger prospects. This needs to change.

Cruising Analogy

My wife and I have been on a cruise this week. We see many people on board who are no different from those with whom we live in our CCRC. Walkers abound. Still, there are many other passengers of varied ages and that creates a welcome vibrancy. We can relish that atmosphere of vitality even if we still choose, as befits the old people we really are, to go to bed long before those younger revelers.

One of our perks on board is evening cocktails in the Concierge Lounge. The night before last we were joined by people who live in a Del Webb Community. They spoke glowingly of how much they enjoy it. Their Del Webb Community is filled with the very young prospects whom the senior living industry claims to want to attract.

I asked them if the Pulte takeover wasn’t limiting their experience since Pulte focuses on mass home construction while Del Webb sought to build communities. “Oh, that makes no difference,” we were told. “We have an HOA and Pulte is not involved.” You can’t say that of senior living where no resident would ever say that decisions are made by an HOA.

Ownership and Self-Determination

This brings to the forefront two components of happy living that Americans choose but that most senior living enterprises ignore. The first is homeownership. The Del Webb folks own their homes. The second is self-determination. The Del Webb residents have the say in the community rules.

I asked about the potential for there to be residents younger than 55. That is a limitation, I was told, but that kind of age segregation is part of the package they bought so they accept it. Mr. Ellsweig’s remark makes clear that many people, now in their late 60s, prefer the kind of intergenerational intermingling that we are experiencing on our cruise.

Cooperative Ownership

There’s no reason why today’s senior living, especially the entrance fee CCRC model, can’t be shifted more toward the Del Webb ownership model. The key is cooperative ownership combined with lifetime proprietary leases since that allows for rapid resale of dwelling units at death, a critical element of serving the very oldest.

Moreover, it’s not difficult to learn how to achieve such a capital-multiplying result. The conversion, principally during the 1970s and 1980s, of the New York City housing stock from landlord-tenant ownership to cooperative ownership provides ample precedence. Additionally, the New York City precedent provides a guide map for the legal and other challenges that a wary CCRC operator might fear.

Reversing the Downdraft

For now, the market share of conventional senior living as a percentage of the potential has been dropping. This is manifest in the rising average age to which Mr. Ellsweig alludes. That rising age makes senior living increasingly unattractive. Without change, without reform, without new ideas, senior living will continue in a downward spiral which suggests that CCRCs will increasingly be no more than high-end, luxury assisted living.

Mr. Ellsweig is wise in the way he is thinking of what lies ahead for him as he ages. He’s seen what is likely, and he knows it’s something he wants to avoid. That need not be the case.