Senior Housing News might have to change its name—Margaret Wylde, the president and founder of market research firm Promatura Group, LLC, is vehemently opposed to the concept of “senior housing.” With changing timelines and attitudes toward retirement, it should be about “lifestyle” and communities that are a great place to live, not just a place to be taken care of, she says.
Wylde’s mature market and housing research afford her extensive knowledge and expertise in the senior living industry to attune her to what consumers want. As the boomers head into the traditional retirement age, the researcher predicts they won’t abide by the same rules the “Silent Generation” did; instead, like the famous Burger King slogan, boomers are going to want to “have it their way.”
Senior Housing News: At this point, everyone’s aware of the 10,000 baby boomers who are turning 65 each day, and will be for nearly 20 years. What is this generation’s attitude toward retirement and retirement communities?
Margaret Wylde: It’s quite varied; there’s a greater portion of boomers who aren’t going to retire at the traditional age, and a lot who aren’t going to retire at all. The majority are going to seek retirement later than they had planned, but still have retirement on their horizon.
The average age of retirement will go up with the baby boomers, largely because of the economic crisis. But we can’t put aside the fact that for the most part, we’re all living longer. When people look at retirement from one job, they might go on to do something else. The word retirement doesn’t really mean what it used to mean. Before, when you worked for someone for 30 years, it was time to retire. Today, we’re living longer and healthier, so typical retirement doesn’t mean stopping work and having a leisure life. And it’s not just for the baby boomers—this is happening worldwide.
SHN: How has seniors housing changed in the past decade or so?
MW: We’ve already seen a shift in how “seniors” housing is perceived. Twenty years ago, the average age that people moved to a traditional retirement community used to be 75. Now, the average age is probably closer to 82.
A traditional retirement community, if it stays as it is today, will only see that age get older. We have to kind of divorce ourselves from talking about our product as a function of the age of the people who move to it. Everything that’s labeled “senior” should be buried, and we should start over.
We have great, great communities, but we have to stop selling that it’s for seniors. It’s for people who want a great time in life, for people who enjoy lifestyle, who have interests, and forget about the age of those who are moving in. We’re going to have to make that switch, and it’s going to be long and painful.
Even in assisted living, it’s labeled as the limitations of people, that they NEED assisted living, and they only get a small amount of care time each day. If we want to entice the boomers at an age before they get to the significant need level, we’re going to have to look at lifestyle, and not start labeling them by their age. We’ve got to get age off of the brain.
It’s not just a retirement community, it’s a residence and a place to live. It’s a great place to live that happens to have opportunities built in, instead of having to go somewhere else. Instead of saying, ‘Let us take care of you,’ it’s, ‘This is a great place to live.’
We can have the added advantage because our industry does know how to provide these other services, to have those there, but we have to quit marketing it from the side of ‘needs and services and age.’
SHN: What might be holding people back from entering senior living communities?
MW: People need to be able to have that sense of control of their own independence. As long as we continue doing what we’re doing, people will stay at home rather than coming to a community if they don’t need help.
A lot of people are living by themselves in their homes. They’re not getting out or enjoying opportunities, but they don’t feel like the communities, or what they’ve seen in them, enhances them or gives them a life that they want. They would rather stay home alone, even if it meant not having a sense of community.
The residential environment isn’t just the bricks and mortar; it’s the fabric of the people who live there. We don’t capitalize on that enough in the industry.
The social fabric of the community, the residents and the employees and the sense of family that gets created—that’s what’s important, more than the physical real estate aspects. We don’t let people feel that.
SHN: How will retirement trends change with the boomers compared to previous generations?
MW: They need a sense of control, which has been true all along. I’ve seen this quite a bit. Part of that fear of entering a community [is], instead of being in a residence that they feel in control of, it’s more like a residence where they feel like there’s going to be a loss of control.
Part of that is needing to eat meals at a certain times. When we test how many meals you need included in your pricing, a lot of people will select 30. But it’s the sense of having to go eat your meal in the dining room, within a certain time frame.
Several communities now have gone toward a 12-hour dining day, where their dining venue are open and you can eat any time you want. That takes away from the “March down there at 4:30 to get in line to eat.” That’s a lot of what people react to, that regimentation when they haven’t that before.
A different psyche is coming up with the baby boomers. The GI generation was more regimented; they weren’t as pampered and as catered to as the baby boomers have been. The so-called “Silent Generation” sort of went along with structure, and were not as demanding, although that’s a big generalization.
The boomers as a group, because there were a lot more to deal with, have been catered to more than any group before, and probably more than most of the groups since, as far as having stuff their way.
SHN: Senior Housing News recently did a series of articles following one titled “Will the nation go broke paying for senior housing & long-term care.” What are your thoughts on the affordability of senior housing, especially as the recession left many unprepared for retirement?
MW: It depends on what is meant by “affordable.” We have a larger number of people who require care, and a smaller proportion who are care providers. Living collectively and sharing the costs is more economical than having somebody come drive around going from house to house to house.
I think as far as lifestyle is concerned, even today, we know lifestyle in our independent living communities, particularly if you are someone who enjoys being with other people, your lifestyle is much better there than if you were to remain in your own home.
I don’t think we need to have so many communities that are Taj Mahals. We have had a lot of our developments focus on the upper-income groups, and there are many people who would probably enjoy a community, but one with less finesse. They just need to be in a place that feels good to them, where they get that sense of being at home relatively quickly. For a lot of people, that’s not going to be great, big expensive buildings. They don’t need the indoor swimming pool. They don’t need a lot of stuff. They need a great place to live, good people to be around, a sense of belonging, and some support to their life, particularly if it could be more engaged with the life that they have.
Affordability can go both directions. You can’t afford the Taj Mahal, but you can afford a communal place where costs of services are shared.
In the next 10 years, the age to enter communities won’t go down in our current form. The industry needs to have new product, and new positioning.
SHN: Is lifestyle marketing catching on?
MW: Some are beginning to implement it, yes. I’m not sure that we really know yet what it is that we need to do. I don’t think we’ve discovered enough yet about what really would entice people, what would be enticing.
We still have our communities designed first, and then we might do a little bit of primary research to find out what people want. It’s starting now with architects driving what the product is, which is driven by what’s been done before. Instead of starting with a blank sheet and talking directly with residents: ‘What do YOU want? Let’s work it out,’ we’re just taking what we’ve been doing and modifying it a little bit.
I think we have a lot of knowledge that can support just about anything that people want, we just might have to package it differently.
Start with consumer, instead of with an architectural drawing or site plan. Create concepts, test concepts with people. You have to give them a vision before you can help them get away from thinking of the last retirement community they’ve seen. Avoid using terminology that exists, like “senior housing.” Ask, ‘What would be a great day for you, and how can we build a community that would give you that experience?’
SHN: What are some hot market spots right now, in terms of location and demographics? Are there any new or unusual ones cropping up?
MW: We just did a study in January, of people aged 55 to 79, and found that in the Northeast, that market sector, over the South, Midwest, and West, is significantly more likely to move, more than any of the other regions in other states.
We have seen some markets which really haven’t been much affected by the economy. For many retirement living providers, the economy has shown the result of poor performance or lack of knowledge of what or how to sell.
We looked at 110 markets recently, and in 65 of them, we looked at the independent living product. In those, 61% of the markets had at least one property with 98% occupancy. But they all had product that was underperforming. But out of 65 markets, only 11% had all of the independent living product in that market with occupancy under 90%.
That means that in 89% of the market, there were at least some properties above 90% occupancy. We keep looking at industry averages of occupancies, but it doesn’t account for the ones that dipped and keep going down. They’re bringing the image of the whole industry down.
What the economy has done is let us see who can perform, and who can’t perform. All the markets have been hit by the economy, but the better ones are succeeding. The ones that haven’t learned, are the ones that are bringing them down.