By Jack Cumming

What a time this has been. And, it’s not over yet. Like all crises, COVID-19 has put the nation, and particularly the senior services industry, to the test and has accelerated the pace of change. The nature of the industry is such that it has long suffered from image and reputation challenges. COVID-19 hasn’t helped. Few leaders who retire from the industry choose to live in the communities they have developed and operated. Early data suggest that with COVID-19 even more people are wanting to stay put.

Follow the Market

The conventional wisdom is that the path to business success is to follow the consumer, and there’s truth to that. If you want to sell something, including residence in a senior living community, you have to find people who are willing to buy. Still, that doesn’t explain disruption, as when Jeff Bezos with Amazon disrupted retailing by going beyond what consumers thought they wanted to give them what they hadn’t yet dreamed of.

Gazing Into the Crystal Ball

How can we apply this to senior living? Let’s use this dreaming concept to crystal ball what senior living may come to.

  1. Imagine senior living communities converted from rental to ownership. Would people be more willing to buy a residence than to pay an entry fee for a rental?
  2. Imagine tax-exempt communities converted from no members, or only corporate membership, to resident voting membership. Would people be more willing to move to a community in which they have a say?
  3. Imagine a community in which there are no age boundaries. Would people of all ages be willing to live in an age-adapted community?

Ownership, voting membership, age-integrated are concepts that are talked of but seldom found. As the talk goes on, though, most people of a certain age prefer to continue living in the integrated community where they have established friendships and where they feel at home. Those who are attracted by the seeming freedom of “active aging” are moving to places like the Villages in Florida and to Del Webb communities in the Southwest and elsewhere. The average age at move-in for traditional senior living is rising.

Aging Is Normal

What do these market behaviors tell us about today’s prospective customer for senior living? The answers seem clear. Those who are growing older . . . they may not yet consider themselves old . . . don’t want to be seen as different. They are people just like everyone else. They don’t want to be humored. They want to participate where they live. They want to be seen and heard and respected.

They don’t feel that they are disabled, though they may want medical services nearby. In short, for the most part, older people want to be treated like everyone else. That doesn’t promise a bright future for an industry that is based on treating old people separately and differently from how others are treated.

The Good News

The good news is that it’s not hard to meet those customers where they are, where they want to be, and where they are likely to be going. The challenge is persuading existing residents of age-segregated facilities to accept a less restricted community. Residents are notoriously resistant to innovation and change.

Overcoming challenges is the strength of innovative management. The opportunity is there to open senior living to the larger market of all adults. Of course, there will be tragedies along the way. Some people will have strokes, some younger, some older, and we need responses to help them live out their lives to the best of their capacities. Others will decline cognitively and begin to leave us spiritually while their physical presence continues in our midst. Our society is committed to caring for the unfortunates among us.


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The Autonomy Challenge

Jennie Dill, a moving spirit in senior living working with those who are memory impaired, recently said, “We can’t bubble wrap the vulnerable.” The temptation is to take away natural human freedoms to keep people safe. We might call that a beneficence approach. We assume that we know best. Beneficence is a medical perspective. We take away personal freedoms in the interests of promoting longevity. The legal and regulatory system, too, pushes us in that direction.

Rayne Stroebel, a South African senior living leader, has been thinking about the meaning of “autonomy.” Should autonomy extend to our permitting behaviors that we might think are self-destructive? In short, should senior care providers play the protective role of parents, or should we give dependent adults the full freedom that we allow our neighbors?

We need responses to keep those who are frail or withdrawn safe, but we also need to let life run its natural course.

Coping With Change

The challenges of aging will remain. Most people will live and die in the larger community. We can meet them where they are. We already have the age-friendly buildings and communal amenities that can provide a less hassled lifestyle for people of all ages. We can eliminate discriminatory age restrictions in our communities, and we can give those who live there ownership options or governance empowerment. That is not difficult to achieve. It just requires a change in mindset and a will to act.

The future has never been brighter for those who have built their lives and careers in senior living. Senior living can become better living for all.