Rethinking the world of “Senior Living”

by Jeff Weiss

I recently had the opportunity to attend a Think Tank on the Senior Living industry hosted by Colin Milner from the International Council of Active Aging in Washington, DC. The session was attended by many of the top executives in the industry with a focus on developing new funding models to support a shift to overall wellness from a healthcare first model. There was great discussion with new ideas emerging that I look forward to seeing put into action.

As a relative outsider to this industry who looks at things through the lens of active aging adults, who largely do not live in adult communities, I was able to listen and watch, which led me to the following observations around the state of the Senior Living industry.

  1. I. A shift to wellness is required

    Even before COVID hit in 2020, it was becoming more apparent that the Senior Living industry needed to flip its focus from healthcare first, followed by wellness, to the other way around. The pandemic only served to drive this need home more. While there is no set definition for what “wellness” means, it will likely be up to each organization to set their own definition and to incorporate it into their respective business strategies. And while the need for healthcare will vary based on the services offered by a community, the overall wellness of an individual should take precedence with healthcare being only one part of the equation.

    This shift to wellness is important to five key audiences:

    1. Current residents who often want to try and experience new things but are often held back by societal stereotypes that say otherwise;
    2. Future residents who want to live a long, healthy and happy life that includes more than just healthcare;
    3. Family caregivers who want a place for their loved one(s) where they can hopefully thrive and not just waste the last years of their lives;
    4. Employees (current and future) who want to work in a broader environment and a culture of wellness;
    5. Investors who are seeing declining occupancy rates and lower operating margins with the current healthcare first focus.
  2. II. A need to reframe the industry

    Our research and experience suggest that it is time to retire the term “senior”, especially when it comes to housing options for older adults. While some people are comfortable with this term, the negative stereotypes often associated with it are likely dissuading potential residents and caregivers from even considering other options beyond living at home (or aging in place as it is often called). The term may also be inhibiting potential employees from pursuing career options in the industry.

    What the industry should call itself is up for debate and could be guided by further exploration of options with the different audiences noted above. For the time being, even moving to ‘Adult Living’ would be a good starting point in changing perceptions of the overall industry.

  3. III. Positioning, positioning, positioning…

    If you take some time to review Adult Living community web sites, you will quickly realize that the vast majority of these communities seem remarkably similar. From the key messages used to the types of images shown to the services offered, there generally is not (or at least does not appear to be) a big difference between communities.

    Positioning is the cornerstone of marketing and one of the hardest pieces to nail in most industries. Many brands and organizations could use help in defining a positioning statement that would set them apart from their key competitors. Without a solid and differentiated brand position, much of a brand’s marketing efforts and budgets will go to waste.

    In Adult Living specifically, there needs to be clarity in a few areas including what resident needs they are serving (independent living and/or assisted living and/or memory care as examples), what market(s) they are serving (e.g., affordable vs. high end housing options) and why they are different compared to other options available to their prospects. Rather than trying to appeal to the largest group possible, make it easy for your well-defined prospects to see why your community is the right place for them.

  4. IV. A need for new imagery

    The time has come to do away with stock imagery, at least in the Senior Living industry. Most people in the industry agree that this needs to change but few communities are doing much to address this issue. The imagery used on web sites and in marketing materials should look authentic and unposed. It should also be aspirational regardless of the resident needs being served. There is also an opportunity to set expectations so that there isn’t a disconnect between what you are showing compared to what your community actually looks like when someone comes for a visit.

  5. V. A need to change perceptions

    Unfortunately the pandemic did no favors to the Adult Living industry as many communities are not seen as a safe haven for older adults. Not only did COVID have a significant impact on existing residents and their families, but it also contributed to negative perceptions for future prospective residents and caregivers.

    Recent research with our Revolution55 community indicated that many active agers have concerns about the safety and/or quality of life of community residents, with about a third of our members (known as “Revolutionaries”) questioning one or both of these elements.

    But there is hope and light at the end of the tunnel for the industry. Our research also suggests that active agers are more likely to consider a move into an adult living community if its features, supportive of their overall wellness, were enhanced. Beyond amenities and service offerings and a safe and secure environment, active agers are looking for opportunities to connect with others and for a place where they can thrive physically, emotionally and mentally.

Click here to access our full report on what wellness means to active agers and feel free to contact me if you want to explore real opportunities for change.

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