Senior Housing Must Stop Ignoring the ‘Forgotten Generation’

In the past year, Traci Bild has helped several of her friends get their parents into senior housing. Each instance shared a common theme, Bild — a senior living marketing consultant — told Senior Housing News. Her friends would not have known where to start, otherwise, because senior housing providers are not doing a good job targeting them as a consumer group.

“I don’t think the senior housing industry is speaking to Generation X,” Bild said.

Bild, founder and CEO of Bild & Company, a Tampa, Florida-based senior housing sales and marketing consultancy, is herself a member of this generation, the demographic of Americans born between 1965 and 1981.

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Bild is not the only senior living marketing expert who thinks providers are paying too little heed to Gen X.

“Generation X has been the ignored generation in marketing,” Debbie Howard, CEO of marketing firm Senior Living Smart, told SHN. “In senior living, we tend to focus on baby boomers and millennials. But it’s Gen Xers who are helping families with technology, and we’re starting to see a leading edge of Gen X being a big part of their parents’ buying journey.”

A growing number of Gen Xers are now the family caregiver to a boomer or silent generation parent, Caring.com CEO Jim Rosenthal told SHN. An infographic provided to SHN by Caring.com — an online senior housing referral portal — reveals 54% of caregivers are between the ages of 50 and 74.

This infographic shows the breakdowns in adult caregivers of senior parents. Courtesy of Caring.com
An infographic showing breakdowns in adult caregivers in families.

“We are seeing more Gen Xers than we used to as their parents are aging,” Rosenthal said.

Senior living provider Koelsch Communities backs up this point; marketing to Gen X has become critical because they are often in the position of navigating the senior living market for their parents, Koelsch VP of Marketing Lesley Yanak told SHN.

But members of Gen X are not only helping their parents make the move into senior living; they will themselves be future residents, and perhaps sooner than some providers realize, given the rise of active adult, intergenerational communities. And even though the generation isn’t as large as the baby boomer or millennial groups, Gen Xers have more wealth at their disposal. Gen X earns 31% of total U.S. household income, making them the most powerful generational consumer segment, according to a survey by Yahoo, Audience Theory and Ipsos. Gen Xers have lived through two major recessions in their lifetimes, and are the only generation to have recovered the wealth it lost during the Great Recession, according to a July study by Pew Research Institute.

An educated demographic

While most marketers highlight the boomer or millennial demographics for their quirks and sheer numbers, Gen X is the bridge between the two and just as technologically adept as millennials, and they are arguably the most informed consumer generation. Generation X members read more online reviews and visit more opinion sites before purchasing a product, according to Chicago-based digital marketing firm Centro.

“In terms of marketing to Gen X, it’s a savvy group,” Rosenthal said. “They’re online every day, they have very high expectations searching for information on the web. [They have] the ability to do that anywhere and everywhere, as well as to do that the way they want. We need to provide the spectrum of opportunities to these folks.”

Gen X is a brand loyalist generation, and word of mouth reviews are the most common, and important, influencers when it comes to making an important purchase decision.

That means moving traditional marketing channels into Gen-X friendly waters with tools like social media, and not necessarily because Gen Xers will use social media to determine where their parents will live, but because they’ve come to expect it from the modern reputable business,” Yanak said.

Social media is a growing part of this new marketing strategy. Olympia, Washington-based Koelsch Communities recently added Pinterest boards and is working on an Instagram page.

“Part of this push to reach Generation X, Pinterest especially, is in response to seeing daughters as a driving force in families, from reaching out to us, touring our communities, and making decisions for parents,” Yanak said. “Data shows they are more likely to be found on places like Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram.”

Not enough senior living providers are meeting Gen X in the online sphere where they spend so much time, though, in Bild’s estimation.

“We want to see what other people say before we make a big decision,” Bild said. “We want knowledge and information, and to take those reviews seriously. But look at the senior housing industry and we don’t even know if they’re courting online reviews.”

A hard time telling the right stories

Bild & Company has regular mystery shoppers visiting senior housing communities, and their reports reveal that operators spend more time during tours promoting the history of their communities rather than highlighting operations, rankings and sharing first-person positive customer reviews that would influence a decision.

“When we talk about marketing to the adult child, we aren’t seeing any segmentation of messaging at all,” Bild said.

Bild believes there is no time like the present for operators to overhaul their marketing strategies, to emphasize the personal, relationship-oriented nature of senior housing. This will serve to give prospective residents and their adult children peace of mind that their needs will be met, once they decide to enter senior living.

“Operators need to understand that and have a built-in process linking to customer reviews, biographies of a community’s key players,” Bild said. “A big thing is what will happen to mom once she gets there. Here’s how we’ll help you.”

Just as internet companies raised their games to attract Gen X and millennials, operators can do the same, Rosenthal said.

“It’s about using user reviews and rankings to convince people to move to a facility where you want to go to,” he said.

One obstacle toward that happening is the multiple responsibilities of a senior housing community executive, Rosenthal said.

Uncertainty on building a plan

Part of the reason operators are missing out on targeting Gen X is an uncertainty on when the anticipated “silver tsunami” will arrive. There is a mentality that boomers aren’t ready yet and won’t be for another decade, Bild said.

However, a rise in intergenerational senior living is presenting new opportunities to capture a younger boomer demographic and perhaps even capture the leading edge of Gen X. Gen Xers have indicated they want to retire at younger ages, compared to their boomer counterparts who want to continue working as long as they can, Howard said. This could open opportunities for Gen Xers to enter intergenerational senior living or the 55+ age-restricted active lifestyle market.

In addition to being savvier about online reviews and building a strong digital brand, as well as doing a better job selling their services and overall value to a consumer rather than their history, senior living providers should keep some other generational characteristics in mind when appealing to Gen Xers. Operators will need to be more choosy with their buzzwords in marketing a community to Gen Xers in the future, Howard said. Operators will need to choose words and images that promote inclusivity.

A larger obstacle in attracting Generation X might be the affordability challenge facing senior living, as owners and operators have struggled to devise a solid and scalable middle-market offering. Despite their relative wealth compared to other age cohorts, Gen Xers also tend to be cost conscious.

The more frugal Gen Xers will also want more affordable options when it comes time for them to make their senior housing decisions. But regardless of the rental rates, a community should have a wider range of financial planning guides and resources to accommodate Gen X.

“Affordability will be compelling to Xers when it’s their time to be in the buyer seat,” Howard said. “They’ll need someone to walk them through the financial implications.”

Written by Chuck Sudo

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