By Steve Moran

As you likely know, the New York Times recently published an opinion piece that was an unfair, unbalanced even ignorant piece on assisted living. I raged about it on Linkedin and last time I looked that post had more than 13,000 views and comments.  

Does She Have a Point?

Most of those comments have been in complete agreement with me about the unfairness of the article, but a few people, industry insiders, have said . . . ”You know I have worked in assisted living . . .” or “I have a family member in assisted living . . . and what this article has to say about senior living rings true to my real-life experience.” 

In addition, a few times a month someone I know from my world outside senior living will tell me their not- so-good senior living experience. Or a consumer will send Senior Living Foresight their real complaints about senior living. I have also heard from other people in the senior living industry who have related their own poor experiences and I find myself wondering if the quality of care problem is really bigger than we are willing to admit.

The Very Real Conundrum

We don’t much like to talk about it, but we live in a pretty awful conundrum right now.

    • Too often, the quality of what we provide to residents with moderate to significant care needs is not as good as we would want if we were living in our own communities. There are some great exceptions to this.
    • Margins are okay but not spectacular, so there is not a lot of money that can be spent to substantially improve the quality of the programs.
    • Margins are declining for three reasons: The cost of labor, reduced occupancy, and poor perception about senior living.
    • We believe consumers are demanding bigger, fancier, more opulent buildings, apartments, and dining experiences, and each of these things increases costs. 

The Path Forward

I believe there are real solutions available and they look something like this:

    • We need to, as an industry sector, be honest and admit it could and should be better than it is.
    • We need to, in some fashion, call out or even shun those who are consistently delivering a substandard product.
    • We need to rethink the amount of money we spend on buildings. It may very well be that smaller units, in buildings that are more utilitarian but provide great programming and more affordable prices will sell better than anyone can imagine (I am not sure anyone has even tried this).
    • There will always be a segment of consumers who want big, flashy, and expensive and that desire should be met, and really, in more than any other segment, already is being met.
    • The industry at large mostly continues to ignore the small home, the residential model of assisted living. It is not fancy, the meals are more basic, the rooms are smaller and the life enrichment programs are very, very modest.   
    • There needs to be a hard focus on how we get better staffing efficiencies. 

I used to frequently rail against the cruise ship/luxury hotel metaphor for senior living and I am gratified to see a lot more senior living organizations talking about purposeful living. Yet, when I look at what we build, what we program, and what we say about what we do that entertaining our residents until they die still largely exists. 

We are, as an industry, counting on this big “age wave” to increase occupancy and I think it will never materialize if we stay the way we are.