By Jack Cumming
Allow me a personal experience. The end of my marriage was devastating. I was in my early 40s, and that 22-year “marriage” had never worked. There I was … ALONE. That was hard. I can’t imagine what it must be to lose a loving spouse late in life. Many people seem to avoid thinking about that later life challenge. The thought of living isolated in a large, empty house, haunted by the past and memories of a lost spouse, fills me with dread. Almost everyone needs company.
In an earlier article, “Seminar Selling Snafu,” I wrote about a marketing event at the pseudonymous CCRC House of Bells. At that event, there was a marketing surprise when the speaker mentioned cohousing. It electrified the room. Suddenly, an audience, which lacked vibrancy, began to pepper the speaker with questions, not about House of Bells, but about cohousing. That was a wake-up moment.
It took me back to those devastating months after the last gasps of that long-dying marriage. I lived then in a large New York City apartment. After months of emotional ups and downs, mostly downs, I chanced on a young person looking for a place to live. I rented out a room to her, and she was soon joined by an equally young immigrant from France. That “Three’s Company” household stabilized me emotionally. I was no longer alone.
This came up again recently in conversation with a friend who lost his wife not long ago. He served as her caregiver during her illness. He noted that the surviving spouse was left all alone. Since cohousing was fresh on my mind, I mentioned that possibility and spoke of my time in New York.
Shortly after we spoke, my friend wrote:
I had not heard of this option before and I was slow to appreciate the possibilities. … There are probably several seniors, such as myself, who are living in a house meant for a family but who have become sole agers due to the death of a spouse. Many in this category (myself included) are in a position to sell their house and move almost anywhere if an attractive option presents itself.
Cohousing is emerging as an idea that appeals to many people, though the movement is still in its infancy, at least as it applies to older people. Sue Ronnenkamp, for instance, is a solo ager who has a successful cohousing experience which is related in a news article you can read by clicking here.
As I’ve learned more about cohousing, it’s evident that it can range from hippie communes to households like my New York City apartment. For older people, cohousing can range from friends deciding to live platonically together to the conceivable conversion of a large CCRC into a more cooperative-type undertaking.
Back to Marketing
That brings us back to House of Bells and the marketing event in which cohousing brought the audience to life. It reminded me that marketing doesn’t begin after the offering — product, contract, and services — are set. It’s hard to sell a weak product. The onus is on the development team to structure something that sells itself with no more than a nudge from the sales team.
House of Bells has long offered everything that I would want in a CCRC. Arguably, it has the best management in the area, capably in the hands of LCS. It has a Type A, care-inclusive contract (the gold standard for trustworthy CCRCs); it’s developing a private-rooms-only care center; and on and on. It’s the best. Still, the audience at the event was energized by something else. That calls for long and probing reflection.
Geriatrician Bill Thomas labels loneliness, helplessness, and boredom as the “three plagues of nursing homes.” We don’t have to limit those feelings to nursing homes. They apply to all of us of whatever age. No one wants to feel helpless and vulnerable. CCRCs thrived because they brought people together to alleviate those three plagues.
The originators of CCRCs envisioned themselves as care providers, and many old people need care. Having care onsite and on-demand provided standby peace of mind. The lifestyle made it attractive for congenial, carefree living. It still is attractive for many people, but the buzz in that room at House of Bells resonated in my head as to why so many other people — the vast majority — are staying put.
As the speaker finally ended the presentation, a gifted salesperson jumped up on stage with a microphone in hand. She spoke of the wonders of House of Bells and of the tours that were about to assemble. I couldn’t help but think how much more powerful it could have been if she might have been able to add, “We have a cohousing section, and we’d love to talk with you about how that might work for you.”
How might that work? Well, first we have to think of how cohousing would work for you if you were considering it as a choice. After all, regardless of your age now, there’s no age that can’t benefit from cohousing. If you were like me with an underutilized New York City apartment, you might do what I did. Someone who seemed trustworthy was looking for a place to live and I had one. I had no idea then how that would evolve into the “family” it became.
People facing old age have several options. It can be difficult for them to decide. Moving to a CCRC is one of those many options. Indecision leads to staying put. That can end badly. My aunt and uncle stayed put until one day a neighbor noticed the papers piling up on the doorstep. The police found them dehydrated and in dire straits. Adult Protective Services placed them into a care home. They lost control of their lives and died soon after. That’s the default.
Cohousing reduces the risk that financial collapse and failure catches residents by surprise. CCRCs are a form of cohousing in which decisions are more often made by corporate authorities than by residents. Grassroots cohousing preserves resident autonomy. When a cohousing resident comes to need professional assistance, a small board and care led by a care professional may be an attractive option.
Rethinking the Offering
If the market begins to shift toward a grassroots cohousing concept, the question for CCRCs will be whether they can adapt. With the smaller living cluster, care responses can be more natural and less commercial. For instance, a person whose scooter knocks a plug out of the wall would not need to incur the charge to have someone come plug it back in. In the smaller home, it’s only natural for someone to see what happened and plug it back in spontaneously.
When something challenging appears to gain popularity either suddenly or gradually, it is easy to see it as a threat. Often, though, it’s better to embrace it as a challenge and to evolve the offering to make the threat an opportunity. That’s the course of wisdom, and wise leaders know how to keep their offerings current and forward-leaning rather than becoming defensive and continuing to try to sell an offering the time for which has past.
Can today’s business-centric CCRCs and other senior living enterprises adapt to meet the market if it becomes more grassroots? That’s a challenge that some leaders will be able to meet, while others may struggle. Marketing involves more than just hiring a sales team to sell a product that people may need but don’t want. Marketing involves the imagination to provide a better life for all who are served.
In case you are curious, my own story ended well. My second marriage is the polar opposite of the first. Adult relationships are partnerships, and that’s a treasure.