By Sara Kyle

I often wonder and ask, “What would it take to make senior living desirable?” 

What could we do better as owners and operators to change our dismal penetration rate and somehow quit chasing people?

How do we navigate from the rehearsed sales spiel in the attempt to convince someone that this apartment or room is exactly what they need in life to be happy and fulfilled?

A Wonderful Thing

A bit over two years ago, something wonderful happened in my approach working with older adults. Perhaps it was getting “laid off” and by laid off, I mean in a huge way. Our entire corporate resident and staff wellbeing department was eliminated without the slightest misgiving.

It was disheartening, to say the least going from believing I was enormously important one minute to being absolutely replaceable the next. I quickly grasped the business side; occupancy is king and void of emotion.

Six Months Later

Six months later I signed up for a role I knew would be challenging, but I felt I was equipped because of my industry knowledge and large network of colleagues.

Revamping the resident engagement strategy for the 261 communities of Holiday Retirement quickly exposed my deficits. I suddenly learned the only thing I was absolutely confident in was the ability to listen to residents. The fear of failure on a grand scale kept me continually second-guessing my approach and going back to the source of truth . . . the resident.

Second Guessing

I started to question how I had managed to convince a great CEO that I was prepared, and equipped to tackle the challenge.

Initially, when I started in senior living, I devoured knowledge through research, editorial columns, mentors, organizations, and conferences. I took everything I heard or read as truth. It was all about understanding the business and all my accumulated knowledge. I felt smart and powerful and completely equipped to make decisions around programming that would ultimately improve people’s quality of life.

In hindsight, I believed that if I had enough information from reputable sources, older adults would listen to me as if I was speaking truth. Now, I think how absurd, at best.

Spinning My Wheels

I wrote exercise programs and tried to decrease the ever-present availability of sugar, snacks, and candy in retirement homes. I was chasing outcomes that would provide an ROI to garner funding for more people and better equipment. Luckily, I had an influential executive, a 65-year-old RN, Sunny Stout, a pioneer in the business, straight up tell me I was crazy. She told me I should choose another battle to fight rather than trying to get people to work out and reduce their sugar intake. Goodness was she ever correct.

A New Way

Thankfully, I have altered my approach, my message, and my intent when I think about strategy or a community visit. I walk through the doors, committing myself to the idea that I am merely there to listen. Too often residents are being told what to do, how to navigate the day, then getting an earful from their adult children about what is the best way to spend their time.

In my quietness, I have learned that their words, which rarely have a quick delivery and spoken without haste, are honest, backed by emotion, and well thought out, as if they have rehearsed the discourse.

Their wisdom on life astounds me. I receive advice on how to be a better mother, maintain a marriage, balance what life throws at you and more than not, walk away a bit guilty that my life circumstances hijacked the conversation.

However, as I step back and look from a bird’s eye view, I understand that imparting wisdom is a sacred gift that is only bestowed upon people who have collected the experiences in life that create insight to impart.


Admitting I do not know all I need to be successful in this space has become liberating. In 2018 under my direction, we put together a robust Welcome Home program. Eighteen months later I would love nothing more than to rescind my nomenclature and throw the word “home” on the ground and stomp the daylights out of it.

I have learned that retirement living will never be “home” and how narrow-minded of me to think I can create a program and process to replicate such feeling. The best part of this is to admit my lack of understanding and have my wrong understanding met with sincere forgiveness from residents.

I have had the chance to apologize for my assumptive professional tactic and in the next 3-5 minutes of conversation I am overwhelmed and distressed by the ways in which they explain how far off a community is from feeling like “home”. 

The Key to Getting It Right

I have been able to put aside my pride and look for success in these conversations. It is easy to get defensive, but when I don’t I gain so much. I end every conversation by thanking them for their honesty, telling them the only way we can get better is to spend more time listening. Their words are more powerful than columns, white papers, research, or demographic studies that bucket individual characteristics into broad categories in an effort to operate more efficiently.

More Listening Less Talking

When I look at senior living as an industry, I wish we could spend a fraction of the time listening to the customer that we do speaking to one another about “them” and how to be better. In full transparency, we set aside an hour, once a month, where residents meet with management. One hour of our undivided attention? And we deploy an annual survey to learn how to be better. I often question if we need a contrived sales pitch, or do we step back and trust that the best voice is the current resident’s voice?

Most all of us in an operating, marketing and sales roles have never spent a single day in their shoes or remotely understand what it feels like to be ushered out of your home at an age when you are ever so content on staying put. From an older person’s perspective, I can start to understand the reluctance and aversion to merely commit to a scheduled tour, even with the enticement of a free meal.

For all of us who work in this space, how do we learn to listen more than we talk? How do we devour knowledge and information from our customer not from each other? And for the record, that incomparable CEO mentioned afore, refreshingly told me upon hire we don’t have the answers . . . rather we have to listen and find out. She quoted a Holiday resident who penned a book with the statement, no one knows what it is like to be old until you are old! May we all become humble enough to admit we need direction and wisdom from the customer we serve.