Senior Living vs. Senior Lifestyle: Adjusting the Development Curve

Not too long ago, when  I was the CEO of a large provider organization, we began to investigate the “next” generation of senior housing products and communities.  We even went so far as to put in-play, one adaptation and had completed significant research on what we hoped would be, our next development foray.  In addition, we began the process of “re-developing” via a series of planning exercises, our existing “older” style housing products, best described as higher density, congregate style communities.  The reason? My personal belief, born out through research, that most traditional style, apartment or congregate style senior housing communities are virtually like the dinosaurs – two feet stuck in the tar pits and ready to become extinct in the seniors housing marketplace.  Of course, moderate to lower cost housing options will remain in the style genre but in reality, most of the current communities are not presently situated as moderate or low-cost housing options.

Like most sociological changes, the shift has been gradual.  When I first entered the “business”, it was not uncommon for seniors near or immediately post retirement to look at moving into the CCRC that we then owned.  The average age of the cohort was 72 and the average age of entry was just shy of 70.  Heck, we had people in their late sixties moving in – voluntarily!  The units were nice, modern and sized appropriately for the “then”demographic.  The community amenities were also nice and spacious, accessorized by a large dining room, craft rooms, game rooms, and specialty rooms (woodworking, weaving, ceramics, etc.).  We were an attractive and desirable option for this group and frankly, an upscale option in many respects from their existing homes.

Over the passage of time, roughly the last twenty or so years, much has changed.  The group that moved in at 70 is now 90 plus and likely deceased.  Their kids are the next target and boy has that group changed.  Unlike their parents, few if any of them (certainly those who can afford a CCRC or middle to upper class housing option) are coming from a home with only one “shared” bathroom.  Most have homes that average 2,000 square feet or larger and already have two cars, a den or recreation room, a jacuzzi, a large kitchen, walk-in closets, and belong to a health club or have a home gym.  Face it, some  of the smaller one-bedroom units I have been in in older senior housing communities aren’t much larger than the master bedroom, master bath suites that their kids are presently enjoying in their current homes.  This generation also has wholly different expectations about the “design” of the space as well.  After all, this next generation has ditched long ago, doing their own dishes, having vinyl on the bathroom floor, using a tub/shower combination with a shower curtain, and the galley kitchen.  Their space frankly, is far different from the space occupied by their parents.

Aside from the spacial considerations, other things have changed equally as dramatically over the past twenty-plus years.  The next generation is far more concerned with “lifestyle” issues.  This isn’t to say that the parents of this next generation weren’t concerned with their lifestyles but to say more succinctly, that the comparison is like a Chevy to a BMW; the latter far more accessorized and tailored than the former.  Being on the “junior” end of this next group, I can attest that my expectations about things other than space are radically different than those of my parents.  For example, I eat different foods and at different times and frankly, food and menu will be incredibly important to me.  I exercise routinely and have a very active lifestyle built around sports and hobbies.  I use the Internet throughout my house.  I am far more health conscious and I am far more socially active across a wider community base than my parents ever were – ranging from sports, to fine arts, to civic events.

To jump back where I began, these changes necessitated (in my former career) movement beyond the existing industry paradigm.  In other words, we needed to re-think and re-develop our products and communities for the next generation of seniors.  The question however, was “how”.  Fortunately, our own research and studying the building trends in the areas we operated gave us significant insights.  For new developments, we focused on the following.

  • Dwelling units that were more free-standing or in smaller groupings rather than “stacked” units in a apartment style buildings.  In all cases, where we could, the units would be one level, barrier free entries and grade level accessible.  Full basements would be minimized as they really were not necessary when the upper level or main level was planned right.
  • Pricing would be based on an “equity” basis allowing for “ownership”, complete unit customization and the owner to have market return.
  • All units would incorporate maintenance free exteriors or at least, exteriors that were minimal maintenance (e.g., brick, cement board, covered gutters, aluminum, forty-year roofs, etc.).  The initial cost would be a bit higher but the life-cycle payback/return would far outweigh the costs on the front-end. 
  • Interiors would incorporate universal design features such as three foot doors, minimal corridors, lever handles on all doors, barrier free showers with integrated seating options and bar options, walls that are pre-backed for grab bars and railings, no-seam floor transitions, non-slip flooring, specialty designed cabinets with readily adjustable heights, cabinet hardware with integrated pulls, and walk-in closets.  Laundry facilities would be on the main level and adjacent to the master bedroom.  In addition, wireless and RFID technology would be built into the structure.
  • The development would incorporate a community center and where applicable, commercial activity (shops, banks, etc.) on the perimeter.  Formal landscaping would be minimized but extensive buffer zones of natural landscape would be used to break up the views and create a more natural environment with walking/biking paths incorporated.  The Community Center could include as many “unique” features as the development could support such as an exercise/fitness center, a bar or pub, meeting space, concierge service, food service facilities/restaurant, etc. 

Re-developing existing projects proved tougher, mostly because units often were sized incorrectly.  In some cases, unit combinations are possible; the process of taking two smaller units or one larger and one smaller and joining them together.  I experienced this with some success but in all cases, the best you get is an enhanced version of the same existing box.  What can be done “best” is what needs to be done “first”, to steal an old adage.  Where space and the building and the infrastructure permits, the addition of any universal design concepts will pay dividends.  It should always be possible to upgrade decor and finishes and to add wireless, cable, dishwashers, microwaves, and other features required by the next generation of seniors.  To the extent possible, even smaller spaces can be made “better” by improving cabinet layouts, bathrooms and living areas by opening space and using contemporary design elements to re-imagine what had been before.

The common areas and the “program” tend to be far more critical in existing projects, primarily because the units themselves will always be somewhat flawed.  In order to modernize to a more lifestyle driven community, space will need to be re-allocated.  In addition, functions will need to be adjusted.  I was in a community in Connecticut where I saw some wonderful examples of exactly how this approach could and did work.  While the community was an apartment or congregate style, it was organized in neighborhoods and decorated to reflect these unique resident driven touches.  The community’s Manager was tasked with “facilitating” resident activity and thus, cocktail parties, dinners, events, lectures, wine tastings, smokers, card clubs, etc., were the norm.  You had the feeling that in the common areas, you were in a private club that catered to a very special community.  The reality is, to adapt an existing community takes careful planning along with community and resident input – current residents and ideally, future residents.  A common theme of priorities that I have discovered is below.

  • Programs are as important as spaces and should truly reflect the social mores and norms of the resident population.  For example, in Milwaukee the Friday night fish fry is a “norm”.
  • Programs and spaces need to be created to attract non-resident seniors into the community. 
  • Integrating formal and informal space is critical and heavy emphasis needs to be placed on adaptable, flexible, multi-use space.
  • Community personalization is key and it should be matched or as closely tied as possible to any branding activities already in-place as part of an overall marketing strategy.
  • Making the environment as unique and reflective of resident and community interests as possible is the key and where applicable, community buy-in is critical.  For example, I know of one community where a local bar/restaurant operates a small scale sports pub/bar that attracts not only regular resident patronage but has become a destination for area seniors.
  • Health, wellness, technology and culture will be critical to incorporate both in the form of space planning and in programming.  The community in Connecticut had a connection with Yale and their academic health programs – highly touted by the residents and a benefit for the broader community as well.

Realizing that costs are always an issue, I have done research in this area as well and as one can expect, the numbers can be anywhere from modest to daunting.  I can safely attest however, that any planning done well can minimize the initial an ongoing outlays and maximize the return on investment.  Most assuredly, the devil is in the planning and without sufficient expertise, thought and time spent, the results will not follow the capital investment.

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