“What do you think the consumer of 2022 or 2027 is going to want as far as technology or amenities?” That was the opening question posed to participants on the “State of the Industry” panel at InterFace Seniors Housing Midwest.
More than 300 industry professionals attended the one-day conference held June 7 in Chicago. The question raised by panel moderator Allen McMurtry, executive managing director with Cushman & Wakefield, tackles one of the largest issues facing the seniors housing industry.
Panelists included Jon DeLuca, president and CEO of Senior Lifestyle Corp.; John Rijos, founding operating partner and CEO of Chicago Pacific Founders; Jeff Sands, managing principal and general counsel at HJ Sims; and Dan Hermann, senior managing director with Ziegler.
Rijos responded first, taking a “10,000-foot view” of the incoming changes to the industry. He first noted that demand was on track to outpace supply, especially if the industry is successful in attracting younger residents (closer to 75 years old than 80).
He also noted, though, that the resident of 2024 was going to have much different demands than the resident of 2017. “The first wave of Baby Boomers are never going to retire. They’re going to reboot,” said Rijos.
With the leading edge of Baby Boomers now 70 years of age, the seniors housing industry needs to start preparing now for a dramatic change in the services demanded, predicted Rijos. No longer content with BINGO and movie nights, the Baby Boomers will want to take guitar lessons and college classes.
“They want a menu of 10 to 15 things to do today, with new levels of activity and purposefulness,” said Rijos. “So how do we deliver it?”
Technology and outside-the-box ideas
Rijos noted that operators can’t afford to hire enough people to meet these increasing demands by hiring more people. But there are ways around that.
At one of his company’s properties in Maine, Rijos says part of the land was donated to the American Red Cross, which built a facility onsite. Now, for only the price of a small piece of a 90-acre plot, Chicago Pacific Founders has given 70 residents a place where they go volunteer.
“It costs me nothing, but our residents are more engaged,” said Rijos.
Another problem is that multiple dining venues are expensive, but often considered a “must-have” for new development. One way to mitigate the cost is through tablet ordering systems, which reduce the number of staff needed to serve residents.
“We need technology,” said Rijos. “We need other ways of caring for people and providing entertainment.”
For this reason, the seniors housing industry needs to get over its technophobia, said Rijos. Too often tech startups are “stopped at the front door.”
“We need to not only let them in, but collaborate so we can get less costly, more efficient services delivered to our residents,” added Rijos.
DeLuca echoed the need for collaboration with outside companies, suggesting that partnerships with local restaurants and theaters could open up new opportunities.
“If we want to attract the younger senior, we have to do things differently,” said DeLuca. “We have to team up with different companies to bring engagement to our residents.”
Shaking a decades-old mindset
One other challenge facing the industry is a perception that has long plagued senior living: the idea that living at home is always better than moving into a seniors housing community.
“There is constant reinforcement in society that the best choice is living at home. You’re inundated with it,” said Hermann. “Somehow society has to get the message out that you live longer, better, more fulfilling lives in senior living communities. It’s especially true when you enter earlier.”
Hermann suggested that the solution starts with finances, by making independent living an affordable and irresistible option for younger, healthier seniors. Once people see the satisfaction and value of those young residents, others will follow.
This solution, if successful, could also help slow down acuity creep: seniors coming into independent living frailer than ever before.
“If you look at who’s coming into independent living currently, it’s an 83-year-old that needs help with two or three activities of daily living,” said Sands. “That used to be what assisted living was.”
Many companies have found some success by blurring the lines between independent living and assisted living, sometimes using the term “enhanced living” or a similar phrase, said Sands. This could be a slippery slope that actually amplifies acuity creep, however.
Operators need to redefine independent living through advertising, interior design and programming to re-establish what the continuum of care is, said Sands.
“There need to be new paradigms established to bring independent living back to independent living.”
— Jeff Shaw