By Jack Cumming

Senior living residents’ expectations are shifting. And to thrive, the industry will have to meet them where they are and where they are going. The biggest difference is that people no longer view the age threshold as earlier generations did. The bright-line cultural distinction between senior living residents and the surrounding community is blurring as is that between staff and residents, and, in general, between younger and older people. When a 75-year-old doesn’t feel old and resents being considered old, it’s time to rethink aging.

For the World War II generation, as for the generations that preceded it, age 65 or 70 defined the onset of advanced old age. The age that we associate with decline has moved up a decade or two with age 85, or even 90, now seen as the end of one’s productive potential. Our President is a near octogenarian himself and most of his leadership counterparts in Congress aren’t much younger.

Our Nation’s Culture Has Shifted

Senior living has to adapt to these changing realities. It’s past time to envision an industry future with a new more active customer. Some operators are already embracing culture change, and their rising occupancy numbers and lower resident turnover show the results. Two come quickly to mind, Brian Lawrence at Fellowship Village in Basking Ridge, NJ, and Sean Kelly at Kendal Corporation with headquarters in Kennett Square, PA.

There are others like Matt Thornhill, Jake Rothstein, Seth Sternberg, and many others. But the Fellowship Village and Kendal initiatives seem most accessible for today’s senior living operators to consider. Fellowship Village stands out for its multiple venue mixed-generation club concept while Kendal’s Enso Village introduces a novel operational partnership model.

To be fully transparent, while these new concepts are successful, they could go a reach further with a couple of minor adjustments. Both communities are rooted in senior living as a post-work living option, i.e. the old idea of a leisure retirement, and in the rigidity of not-for-profit financing. The industry might better fulfill its mission by rethinking these twin conventionalities. But, let’s dive into these two innovative programs before we get too far ahead of our story.

Mixed-Generation Membership Club Concept

Fellowship Village has opened its Fitness Center and Tapas Bar and Lounge to members from the larger community as well as residents. They are doing this by forming separate club memberships for these groups, which allows them to shield residents from public access while providing mixed generation venues. Why they don’t have a similar membership-model co-working space escapes me, but that may not be needed in their ex-urban market area.

Spiritual Unity Concept

Kendal Corporation is going in a different direction, which is consistent with its history and with its commitment to Quaker values. Kendal has long been noted for including residents in governance and not treating them as a separate class of people apart from staff and management.

Kendal is working with the San Francisco Zen Center to create a community of spiritual connection in the wine country north of San Francisco. It is notable for its vegetarian venue, its commitment to a zero-carbon footprint, its uplifting care approach, and its focus on the inner life of the soul.

What is Seen and Unseen

These concepts are exciting, but they still overlook the continuing productivity that many people want for their lives. A productive life can give meaning and purpose to what might otherwise seem like an empty existence.

Think of what we see on most senior living campuses, and then imagine what we don’t see. We see a welcoming lobby and friendly front desk staff. We see residents gathering amiably waiting for dinner. We see residents chatting and laughing. We see residents happily engaged in arts and crafts. That’s what we see.

What isn’t visible are residents who don’t have that kind of time. We don’t see them because they’re too busy. Time is what they value. We don’t see others, who have equally busy lives, because they don’t move in. Despite their age, or because of it, they don’t feel they belong in senior living. They are unseen.

In the past, residents came to senior living to retire. Communities were even called “retirement communities.” Retirement was seen as a time of leisure at the end of a productive life. That is changing so rapidly it has arrived before we were ready. Embracing that change is a sweet spot for senior living.

Are We Living in the Past?

There are people who want that lifestyle filled with crafts and other hobbies. They like the predictable rhythm of daily living as they age. Increasingly, those who make that choice are older, many of them close to 90 or more, and who move in after a trigger event or who fear that one may be imminent. They are joined by a dwindling number of active younger people who are ready for leisure.

The market is narrowing. Signs of growing market resistance have been evident for some time.

  • The average age at move-in continues to rise. The increasing age of new residents has been occurring for over a decade, and it’s not letting up. That tells a story that we need to heed. It gives us a smaller pool of prospects and a churn rate that challenges marketers. The risk is that today’s senior living may just become assisted living and hospice.
  • At the same time, the sales process has become more difficult. Why doesn’t the product sell itself? Why is it so hard to sell? What happened to waitlists? We can blame others – COVID-19, economic setbacks, vagaries in real estate markets, etc. – but in the end, those are rationalizations. Successful organizations, enterprises, industries adapt and change.

What of Productive Aging?

The words “productive” and “aging” are not often found together. That’s going to change. It’s already changing. Those invisible “others” who we don’t see want more than the care-wrapped lifestyle product that we’ve long offered. They want a meaningful life with purpose. It’s not that they cannot afford to move in; they have the means but want something more than just economic well-being, leisure, and wealth. Many feel called to address social issues: the environmental challenge, wealth inequality, diversity among nations, and more. Others have loved working and don’t want to stop. They find their life meaning in their daily work activity.

Additionally, there is a large number of wannabe entrepreneurs who are ready to start a business now that they have sufficient financial security to take that risk. Every successful entrepreneur knows that a startup is a time sink. The senior living lifestyle can simplify their lives and give them the time they need to get going. When these people come in, it’s because they want the time to pursue their passion free from the chores of everyday living. Time is what matters to them. This trend toward passionate purpose appears to be accelerating.

Would You Move to Senior Living?

Consider my friend Dan. That’s not his real name, but he’ll know who he is. When he was in his mid to late 50s, he got the idea for an internet business. He discussed it with his employer who encouraged him to start the business while continuing to work for the employer. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it?

Dan got lucky but only after setbacks. He had a few learning experiences. They were tough. He was his own self-critic and that helped him to adapt. He learned quickly from those early missteps. His skill with his new craft got better and better. Gradually, he attracted customers who liked his offerings and sponsors who wanted his help promoting their products. Dan was careful. He didn’t accept all who wanted an endorsement. Dan gained a reputation for credibility and those in the market learned that sponsors he endorsed delivered great value.

Dan’s revenues took off slowly. Eventually, he was able to leave his day job to concentrate on his business. He helped his employer with the transition. Dan is a responsible person with high ethical values eager to serve others. He was grateful to his employer for helping him, and he enjoys helping people to succeed beyond their own dreams. Now Dan is approaching 70. He’s attracted to the carefree life of senior living. He’s very familiar with the industry; after all, he’s my friend. But, he tells anyone who asks that he’s not ready for that yet.

Let’s put ourselves for a moment in his shoes.

Why Not Senior Living?

Would he want to give up homeownership? Probably not. Would living in a senior living community make people take his business intentions less seriously? Probably yes. Would a senior living community be supportive of his business activity? Maybe, or maybe not. Would he be able to manage an overcrowded, busy schedule and calendar within the more relaxed pace of senior living? That would be a challenge. How likely is he to move soon to senior living? Not very likely.

How likely would you be to move to senior living if you were Dan? You may think he doesn’t belong in senior living. Now think about what that says about the community you’re creating. If it’s a place where active people with meaningful lives don’t belong, what kind of future can your community have?

Welcoming the New Day

Why not meet this generation – perhaps it’s your generation – where they are and where they want to be? Are we ready to step up the pace of change? Can we embrace the disruption and make it our own? Can we jump from laggard to leader? Why didn’t Alexa start with senior living? Why is there still so much paper? Opportunity is knocking at the door, but it will take constructive change to welcome it in.

Fear of change is common. It takes a winning personality to convince colleagues that we will all feel better and do better if we make the transition. It’s time to re-envision what senior living can be. It’s a new century, a new decade, a new era, and we are blessed to be alive and part of it. Let’s take advantage of the times we live in.

Change is everywhere. The positive side of the pandemic was that it showed us how adaptable we can be. It also made us more comfortable with change. It’s not surprising that change is now ubiquitous. Change follows naturally as we recover from a trauma like that which has upended our lives.

It’s most visible in technology, but change is impacting organizational practice – think of the gig economy and the workforce challenge – and it’s impacting finance and the sources and uses of capital. Change is touching everything we know. It’s not surprising, then, that changing expectations are emerging among residents and prospective residents. We, too, are positioned for change. That new vision of a new resident and a new industry concept is our opportunity for the dawning new era.