Senior Living Industry Making ‘Huge Mistake’ By Selling Care

The debate around whether senior housing is primarily a health care or hospitality industry has long raged among operators, owners and marketers—and now, one well-known industry figure says far too many companies have emphasized senior living’s health care component over its hospitality side.

In fact, in the eyes of the consumer, senior living has “become too defined by care needs,” according to Robert G. Kramer, founder and now strategic advisor at the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC).

“We’ve more and more sold care, we’ve not sold quality of life—and I think that’s been a huge mistake,” Kramer said on March 28 at the What’s Next Boomer Business Summit in San Francisco. To best appeal to future residents or baby boomers, senior housing providers must instead market their unique ability to enhance older individuals’ quality of life through meaningful social engagements and new connections.

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This is actually what sets senior living apart from other care settings for older adults, according to Kramer.

“Ultimately, the premise and promise [of senior living] is social engagement, connection—and care is sort of the side piece,” he said.

Individualized, personalized aging

One of the best ways to engage and connect with residents is to learn their unique, personal backstories, and then create programming that takes their histories and interests into account, according to Kramer.

This concept—known as “life engagement”—should be senior living’s “greatest calling card,” he explained. Instead, he argued, it’s an area where most current senior housing communities fail miserably.

To fix this, senior living community staff should determine what brings each individual resident joy, as well as what each resident is most proud of. Then, staff should engage each resident based on that information, according to Kramer.

This approach helps ensure that every resident’s aging process is personalized—as opposed to generic—and enables staff to connect with residents in a lasting, meaningful way.

At present, however, many senior housing communities still offer activities and programs that, like bingo, are designed to appeal to and include as many residents as possible. For the most part, these activities do not take individual residents’ preferences into consideration.

There’s danger in not learning residents’ backstories, as well as in failing to offer programming that is uniquely appealing to individual residents.

“If you’re offering dumbed-down, lowest-common-denominator programs, you’ll go out of business,” Kramer said.

Necessary changes in store

Senior living communities must take the time to assess who each and every one of their residents currently is, and once was, as a person.

Unfortunately, this is often easier said than done—as is engaging residents in general.

“We now have precision medicine, [but] we don’t have precision programs for engagement and connection,” Kramer said.

There are some technology solutions designed to help engage residents, but technology in general can be tricky for many operators to implement, according to Donna Kelsey, CEO of American Senior Communities. The Indianapolis, Indiana-based provider manages approximately 94 senior housing communities throughout Indiana and Kentucky.

“It’s not easy to innovate in senior living because a lot of our staff is high school-educated, our residents are all at different parts of the aging process, and we do have [staff] turnover,” Kelsey said at the Summit. All the while, many older communities weren’t designed to host robust WiFi systems, and those are typically necessary for technology solutions to work.

“Our physical plants are horrible,” Kelsey said. “[They] have to entirely change.”

Written by Mary Kate Nelson

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