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As I look at the future of senior housing, I see a beautiful rainbow created by strong demographics and longer life expectancies. The workforce needed to provide the needed care and services is in a generation that exceeds the size of the Boomers. However, if we are resigned to how things have always been done, we must be cautious about what is at the end of the rainbow.

The Greatest Generation, Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials all bring a different perspective and culture based on their experiences and upbringing. The challenge for any business is that each generation frequently wants different services in different ways. If that were not enough, the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic will likely change the way services are provided.

Before the pandemic hit, the industry had been focused on what changes the Boomers will bring. We have all heard the facts: Boomers have not saved enough money, we need to provide greater variety and choice, and technology and logistics will provide disruptive solutions. If those are some of the facts, how do we take advantage of the changes to come?

Boomers Have Not Saved Enough

While it is true that Baby Boomers, on average, have not saved as much for retirement as the previous generations, we cannot forget that the Boomer generation is 73 million people strong. Their parents, the Greatest Generation, is a much smaller cohort. Therefore, the number of people who will be able to afford a high-end senior housing product is much larger than the current population residing in retirement communities.

Does that mean we need more high-end retirement communities? Perhaps, though the statistics also demonstrate that there is huge potential for a moderately-priced product. That product will probably be larger than average communities today, have a lower entrance fee with ala carte offerings or be pure rental, and will have fewer amenities included.

Experts are also saying that Boomers want to stay in their homes rather than moving to a community. However, I do not think this is a different sentiment from the generations before them. Even today, most of the age and income qualified seniors stay in their home and may contract for services to remain as independent as possible. We certainly know that will not change, so there continues to be opportunity for those who can provide home care services efficiently.

I think that the size of the Boomer generation will ensure there are plenty of people who have saved responsibly for retirement and will move into the right community – one that matches their preferred lifestyle. For those who do not want communal living, I see huge opportunity for an expansion of home and community-based services on a private-pay basis for those who can provide flexibility of schedule and offering.

Residents Want Choice

While the Greatest Generation and the Silent Generation were more content with limited offerings provided as part of an “all-in” cost, the Boomers helped create our consumer-centric society. Television and print advertising made our “wants” the drivers of our purchases. Suddenly, our choices of products did not fit in a Main Street storefront and we needed bigger stores just to show us all that we could purchase. Generations from Boomers and beyond have grown up with a huge variety of products and choice has become an expectation.

What does that mean for a retirement community? We must offer greater variety in dining options, both in venue and cuisine. We must offer a variety of fitness options and classes, activity programs and recreation venues, housekeeping schedules, apartment and home styles, and more. The idea of choice also lends itself to ala carte pricing options so residents can build the program they want.

As I look at the future of my own community, I am constantly evaluating where we can add flexibility and choice. The dining choices need to balance modern and varied cuisine with comfort food. The activities program needs to be robust. Fitness and wellness continue to be critical components. As I age, I also consider what would be a draw to me to make the decision to move to my community. 

Disruptive Solutions

The consumer society that drove an increase in variety also drove a series of cultural changes. To afford the goods and services we wanted, we saw the proliferation of two-income households. With both adults working, we found a need for convenience. Technology has been able to bridge the gap between what we want to purchase and having the time to shop for and receive those goods. More and more disruptors are taking advantage of opportunities to provide choice and variety through technology.

Amazon is the behemoth in this area. Thanks to that company, in just a few short minutes, we can buy a variety of goods from all around the world and have them delivered right to our door in just a day or two. We can send a birthday gift wrapped and with a gift receipt straight to the recipient’s door without getting up from the desk. Companies like Shipt and Instacart do our grocery shopping for us and bring the items to our homes. UberEats and GrubHub will pick up food from our favorite restaurants and deliver it right to us. When we want a home cooked meal, companies like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron deliver meal kits with recipes. We do not even need to stop at the pharmacy any more with mail order medications. Operators of senior housing communities need to pay attention to these disruptors and evaluate if they want to compete or partner to enhance the care and services provided to residents.

It is easy to think these disruptors will not affect our operations much. However, unless the services offered by your community provide the same flexibility and convenience, you are losing out on an opportunity. I am looking at services people use to see if we can incorporate them into our offering. I see us providing grocery shopping services, flexible and personalized transportation, and in-home dining services to mirror what the disruptors provide while keeping the revenue in my community.

How Will the Pandemic Change Offerings?

A new consideration as we look forward is to evaluate how the COVID-19 pandemic might change senior housing. Over the long-term, I do not believe there will be significant changes traced specifically to the virus. I believe that this experience has just strengthened the disruptors discussed previously. We have recognized quite clearly that not only can we get everything we need delivered to the safety of our home, many of us can also work from our home office.

Some of the long-term changes, though, may include how we encourage a safe and healthy community. We are now experienced in “locking down” our campuses to outside visitors and we are vigilant in screening staff and contractors. We are better at sanitizing surfaces and are focusing on basic procedures to promote good health. We are wearing masks as a preventative measure in public places. People living in their own homes are doing all the same things, but they are missing one key ingredient. That missing ingredient is social interaction.

The strength of the industry will always be the sense of community and the resulting lifestyle. Through the pandemic, my residents have expressed gratitude at having a team available to help them stay safe. At the same time, they have friends and neighbors just outside their door to help fight loneliness and a great staff to stave off helplessness. While the way we provide care and services will continue to evolve, there is no replacement for human interaction.