Nonprofits Must Adapt Faster to Senior Living Disruption

Senior living nonprofits must learn to cope with industry disruption soon — or communities could become places that people would prefer to avoid.

“If we’re not able to move forward, we risk becoming sort of like the outhouse: functional, workable, but not your first choice,” said Steve Jeffrey, chief strategy and innovation officer for Garden Spot Village, a life plan community with nearly 1,000 residents in New Holland, Pennsylvania.

Jeffrey spoke Monday at the LeadingAge Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., as part of a panel that spanned a range of topics. But the central theme was clear: senior living providers, particularly nonprofits, must be willing to change — and do so quickly — or risk falling behind more nimble competitors.


With numerous technological and health care pressures on the horizon, disruption — and how to live with it — has been an extremely hot topic among many senior living stakeholders, from senior living visionary Bob Kramer to the tech luminary who co-founded Reddit.

“We’re facing the greatest disruption we’ve ever seen in two ways: affordability and workforce, and they’re working against one another,” explained Kari Olson, chief innovation and technology officer for Glendale, California-based Front Porch, which operates 10 continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) as well as affordable housing, active adult and memory care offerings.

And if providers don’t think quickly, today’s challenges could imperil the not-for-profit industry landscape as we know it, according to Peter Kress, chief information officer for West Point, Pennsylvania-based Acts Retirement.


“One of the reasons I think our sector is at risk … is because change is so hard, and I fear we’re moving too slowly,” Kress said.

The industry has about five years to get its act together before demographic, technology and workforce challenges truly come to a head, he explained. And with time of the essence, senior living providers — many of which are more cruise ship than speed boat — will need to adapt relatively quickly.

“I think that we’re right at one of those moments in time in which you can’t only rely on incremental improvement,” Kress said.

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Kress pointed to a recent multi-year push to roll out electronic health records (EHRs) in 23 of Acts Retirement’s campuses as an example of the current pace of change within the industry.

“It was 100 deployments to get the EHR system fully deployed,” Kress said. “I’m not sure how many more of those multi-year deployment efforts I have in me, and yet we’re facing the prospect of needing change … not just in the area of technology but across the board.”

For Jeffrey, the looming disruption highlighted the need for a change of attitude among many among senior housing nonprofits, especially those that compete with for-profit providers that may have more resources and manpower.

“We’re too nice. I mean that honestly,” Jeffrey said. “This is an environment where … you’re going to be left behind. That’s not been our mentality historically.”

‘Build a bridge’

Despite all the talk of the dire threat of disruption facing providers, the panelists did have some ideas for the future. In particular, senior living providers must be willing to embrace what they do especially well.

In some cases, that may mean a pivot back to an organization’s mission and core values. For example, focusing on socialization, implementing more wellness-focused initiatives and leveraging local relationships could help bring struggling organizations back from the brink.

The antidote to disruption could also lie in closer partnerships with adjacent senior care providers or services, according to Sheri Rose, executive director of the Thrive Center, an innovation hub focused on aging and based in Louisville, Kentucky.

“I would encourage you not to build a moat, but to build a bridge,” Rose said. “How do you forge those partnerships where you become the resource in your community?”

Senior living providers should also closely examine trends outside of the industry and implement them where they make sense. In the example of Garden Spot Village, that meant looking beyond senior living to the consumer-facing restaurant world for fast casual trends and to social architecture for its Sycamore Springs pocket neighborhood model.

“It’s not enough just to compare what we’re doing to other senior living communities or other health care organizations,” Jeffrey said. “That’s comfortable … but what really helps us is what we see out in life.”

Along that line of thinking, tomorrow’s crop of senior housing residents will bring with them a wide range of technological preferences from their own lives, and providers had better take that into account or risk falling behind.

“It’s about using the technology as a tool to help people achieve meaning and purpose,” Olson said. “And the degree to which you can personalize it, you win.”

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