Active Adult Must Balance Light Staffing, Strong Programming to Succeed

Programming separates active adult from simple age-restricted multifamily communities. But it can be a challenge to come up with engaging activities for active adult residents, especially given the limitations in staffing and budget for these operations.

One solution is to program communities with a mix of resident-led and provider-led activities. That way, residents will still have plenty to do and see, but providers won’t be left with a blown-out activities or workforce budget at the end of the day. And those communities that strike the right balance and create a strong programming package are likely to enjoy a competitive advantage in an increasingly crowded market.

The active adult rental sector is seeing rising interest from investors both from the multifamily and senior living worlds, and as industry stakeholders try to define this product, they are also trying to formulate the right mix of services, amenities and price points to attract the crucial baby boomer demographic.

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Active adult providers who have created or are focused on finding a winning formula for programming include Troy, New York-based United Group; Newport Beach, California-based Avenida Partners; and Minneapolis-based nonprofit Ebenezer Senior Living.

‘Our programming is who we are’

One way to keep costs low while programming active adult activities is to give residents more responsibility in planning and executing their own events. This differs from the traditional senior living model, where a community’s activity director and staff take the lead in that endeavour.

While age and mobility might limit what residents can do in a more traditional senior living setting, active adult residents are generally younger and fitter than their senior living counterparts, and thus more able to handle taking the initiative.

For instance, Avenida Partners — which has three active adult communities currently open and another three under development — encourages residents to start and maintain their own clubs. That way, the company can keep its communities to a staff of only about six people, including a full-time resident enrichment director.

“We’ll have a combination of resident-led programming and Avenida-led programming,” explained Robin Craig, senior vice president of sales and marketing with Avenida. “Because they’re more active, there’s a lot of capability of the people living there to support the programs.”

The overall goal is to give residents ample opportunities to discover and organize the things they like to do. For instance, residents interested in music might work with Avenida to form a music club. Once those clubs are off the ground, they’re more or less run by residents, not dedicated staffers. This not only helps Avenida save time and money, it helps give residents purpose as they age, Craig said.

That’s not to say Avenida doesn’t plan activities for its residents, too. The company arranges more than half of the activities offered in its active adult communities, with examples that include lessons from certified fitness instructors and health and wellness professionals, art classes and themed social events.

On the whole, Avenida aims to have about six to eight activities for residents each weekday, and about three or four activities on the weekend, Craig said.

Avenida communities employ a concierge, who helps residents schedule appointments like dog-walking, dry cleaning or food catering. Other perks for residents include transportation services and a continental breakfast served six days a week.

The company also has its own wellness and resident engagement program called Five to Thrive, which focuses on life activity, material security, physical and functional fitness, cognitive efficacy, and social resources.

“The programming definitely helps us define our product, that we’re not multifamily or senior living,” Craig said. “Our programming is a key component of our Avenida brand.”

Another organization that puts residents in charge of their own activities is Minneapolis-based nonprofit Ebenezer Senior Living, which has a newly opened, 48-unit active adult rental community in Clear Lake, Iowa. While the organization employs property managers who help with scheduling and resource allocation, it’s the residents who lead the way.

“We ask them what they would like, and then we help make their dreams come true,” Ebenezer Vice President of New Development Susan Farr told SHN. “So, if they want to go to a vineyard, we’ll rent the bus.”

Ebenezer aims to spend about $5,000 to $10,000 annually on activities at its active adult communities. That includes events like happy hours with cheese and charcuterie, or special outings, Farr said.

Fun in the ‘Sun’

Another company that’s landed on a successful model for active adult activities is United Group, which has won awards for its Sun Program and believes that it is a competitive differentiator.

United Group has six active adult properties under management and two others under development. The company also operates or owns five “independent living light” communities, which have commercial kitchens and more built-in amenity space. Two more IL-light communities are under development.

In United Group’s Sun Program, activities fall under seven prongs: health and wellness; finance, legal and administrative; education and lifelong learning; fun and recreation; convenience and economies; community and friendship; and safety and security.

As part of the Sun Program, residents might take part in fitness classes, outings, aqua aerobics, cooking demonstrations, estate planning seminars, happy hours, block parties and other regular events.

United gears its activities toward the preferences of its residents, according to Michael DiGiacomo, the company’s vice president of senior and student housing. That means that while the seven prongs remain constant, the Sun Program’s activities will be different in, say, Florida versus Colorado.

“They’re proud of where they’re from, and they understand that sense of community,” DiGiacomo told SHN. “So, we drive programming around that.”

This focus on what residents want has helped the company command a price premium of 35% to 50% over comparable Class A multifamily properties. It also helped United win gold in the 2016 National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Best of 55+ Housing Awards, among other accolades.

“We believe that the Sun Program sets us apart from other management firms and other developers,” DiGiacomo said.

Occupancy in its active adult and independent living light properties is trending in the mid- to upper-90% range, with an average length of stay between four and seven years.

United has achieved all of this while employing just six or seven staffers per active adult community, including those who work in maintenance. While the company sometimes employs resident lifestyle coordinators to handle activities and programming, those duties may also fall to the community’s property manager.

Crucial to maintaining a low staff ratio is training and education, DiGiacomo said. For instance, new employees are paired up with a mentor at an established community who can show them the ropes and help them hit the ground running.

“We have a property in Colorado where we just hired a brand new lifestyle coordinator, and they will be paired up … with their neighboring property’s activities director,” DiGiacomo explained. “It’s kind of a train-the-trainer type atmosphere.”

The company also has an education program called United University, where budding leaders learn from different department heads at United Group. Again, the goal is to equip leaders with the tools they need to build out a robust activities program without much direction.

As United Group continues to expand its active adult and IL-light portfolio in the years ahead, it is leaning heavily on its Sun Program to help it stand out from new competition.

“The active adult space is growing,” DiGiacomo said. “Our seniors are getting younger. I think that United has done a great job preparing for that.”

Interested in learning more about the active adult market? Click here to access the new SHN report, “The Changing Face of Active Adult Rental,” which dives into the active adult collaboration and competition between senior living and multifamily, shows the data driving active adult development and illuminates the drivers that are leading young baby boomers to embrace active adult as a new living option.

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