There’s no accounting for why certain internet content goes viral. Who’s to say why Chewbacca Mom racked up more than 145 million Facebook views?
But last week, a Facebook post about the possibility of retirement living at a Holiday Inn went viral — and senior housing providers should consider why it struck a nerve with so many people and whether this has been a squandered opportunity to connect with consumers.
“No nursing home for us. We’ll be checking into a Holiday Inn!” began the post from Terry Robison, a 64-year-old who lives in Texas.
In the rest of the post, Robison laid out several potential advantages to retirement living at a Holiday Inn, including that they offer free breakfast, family members (especially with pool-loving kids) will be glad to visit, and it’s more affordable than other options. Nursing homes run about $188 per day versus about $59 a night at a Holiday Inn, the post claimed. In subsequent interviews, Robison has clarified that he actually was presenting Holiday Inn as an alternative to independent living-style communities, not nursing homes.
The post now has more than 132,000 Facebook shares, and news outlets across the United States, and even in other countries, have run stories about it.
Many of these articles focused on whether retirement living at a Holiday Inn might actually be a viable option. Spoiler alert: probably not.
But it seems obvious to me that many of the people who shared this post did not actually consider Holiday Inn a realistic retirement housing option. If this is the case, it raises the question, why did this post resonate with so many people?
Contemplating this question is a worthy exercise because the popularity of this post does not reflect well on the senior living industry. It suggests that many people are drawn to an outlandish idea that offers a more appealing vision than the housing and care options that are actually available. And Robison’s post is not a one-off; it was inspired by a chain email that has been circulating for years.
I’d like to offer three theories about why the post gained such popularity, and reflect on the implications for the senior housing industry.
Theory number one: simplicity. As USA Today reporter Kristin Lam wrote: “The Facebook post touting the idea strikes a chord with some seniors because of its simplicity.”
Consider the way that the post starts — “No nursing home for us.” But as he clarified to reporters after the post went viral, Robison isn’t even talking about nursing homes, he’s comparing Holiday Inns to independent living residences. This confusion in terminology highlights that senior living is too complicated for consumers to understand. What is a nursing home? What is independent living? (How is that different from “active adult”?)
Secondly, the post also resonated because of its focus on affordability. This was the heart of Robison’s argument — that Holiday Inn offers better value than a nursing home. Even if they didn’t take the Holiday Inn suggestion literally, Robison’s post may have struck a chord with people who are exasperated with the high-cost options they’re seeing in the marketplace and wondering why there’s not an appealing budget-friendly alternative. As Robison told USA Today, sharing the post may have been a way for people to “vent.”
Finally, I’m detecting a dash of denialism at play here as well. Robison’s post paints a picture of an idyllic old age in which you remain mostly independent right up to the end — or, if you do have a health episode, Medicare pays the tab and the Holiday Inn upgrades you to a suite. I’m guessing some percentage of people were drawn into this fantasy.
In terms of those first two theories — that people liked the simplicity and affordability of this idea — I know that senior living professionals are well aware that consumers are confused about their options and know that the middle market is not being served well. And I do think that there are strides being made to address these issues.
To address consumer confusion, campaigns like ASHA’s Where You Live Matters provide explanations of senior living options. I believe that in the longer-term, the increasing number of senior living communities integrated into intergenerational, mixed-use developments will de-mystify the product. Right now, many people have no idea what they will find when they walk into local senior living communities, whereas everyone knows what they’ll find at the Holiday Inn; as more people begin to patronize salons and coffee shops in senior living buildings, this will start to change.
Solving the puzzle of how to create a more affordable senior living community is not easy, but progress is occurring here as well. The National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC) will be releasing the results of its middle-market study on April 24 and holding events to explain its findings in Washington, D.C. and New York City. Some providers already are modeling a more affordable product — SHAG in the Pacific Northwest, for example. Meanwhile, companies such as Eclipse Senior Living are building multi-brand portfolios that will offer senior living at different acuity levels and price points, similar to how the hotel industry operates.
That brings us to the third theory, denialism. There’s probably not much that senior living providers can do to combat people’s denialism about some of the unpleasant aspects of aging. But I do think that there could have been a more full-throated and deft response from the industry, that could have calmed people’s fears by showing them that senior living providers have a sense of humor and aren’t all a bunch of Nurse Ratcheds wheeling carts of Depends around.
It’s not often that news sources as varied as USA Today, the Houston Chronicle, MarketWatch, The Independent, The Hill and scores of others all run stories about senior living. Some of these media outlets spoke with senior care experts or financial advisors, who threw cold water on the idea of Holiday Inn retirement. By and large, these sources did not do much to address people’s underlying fears and anxieties, and if anything, stoked them. Consider what financial advisor Sam Dogen told MarketWatch:
“The [Holiday Inn] cleaners are there to clean your room, not to pick you off the floor when you’ve fallen and can’t get up. The front desk is there to switch on your After Dark Pay Per View, not to bathe you after you’ve soiled your undies.”
That’s a pretty picture of senior living, isn’t it? A bunch of people falling down and soiling themselves. Of course, it’s not Dogen’s job to be an advocate for senior living. That’s the job of providers and others in the industry itself, but as far as I can tell, these voices have been absent from the public conversation happening about this Facebook post.
I think senior living could have taken a cue from how Holiday Inn played the moment, by providing a statement to news organizations with a dash of humor: “While we’re not certain how Mr. Robison arrived at his current budget calculations, we look forward to welcoming him when he reaches his ‘golden age.’ He did miss one big benefit in his long list of reasons to stay with us – kids eat for free at Holiday Inn. So that’s another excuse for the grandkids to come and visit.”
Why didn’t senior living providers across the country tag Robison on their own Facebook pages, with a post saying that they offer better breakfasts and better value for seniors than Holiday Inn? They could have linked to a cost calculator showing how senior living can be more affordable than people think when all factors are weighed, such as savings on property taxes. Providers could have even offered to serve visiting grandkids free muffins in the morning — that’s got to be a less costly concession than rent breaks for new residents. Maybe some organizations have done something like this and I’ve missed it, but Robison told me that no senior living providers have contacted him.
Such a message obviously isn’t on-brand for all the high-end providers in the market, but there are certainly companies out there that could have made this pitch, and with occupancy down, this seems like the kind of marketing and image that organizations want and need to project.
So, in thinking about this Facebook post, I came to two conclusions. In the long-term, senior living is moving in the right direction to quash this “retiring at a Holiday Inn” idea. But in the short-term, it seems that the industry could be playing the game better to educate consumers, improve the image of senior housing, and attract new residents.