Mather was not planning for a global pandemic when the organization embarked on the creation of a $475 million-plus life plan community near Washington, D.C. But after Covid-19 struck, Mather listened to consumers, adapted the project design and reached the 70% pre-sold mark in September.
That’s three months ahead of the schedule that was set before Covid-19 struck, Mather President and CEO Mary Leary told Senior Housing News. An Evanston, Illinois-based nonprofit, Mather operates senior living communities in the greater Chicago market and in Tucson, Arizona.
Needless to say, Leary is pleased that the pandemic has not dampened interest in the new life plan community, and she believes that it is a positive sign for the industry, as an indicator that demand remains strong — particularly among baby boomers. Senior living owners and operators across the country are trying to serve this huge demographic by creating a new generation of communities in desirable locations, with appealing designs and lifestyle choices.
Nearly 60% of depositors for the new community are boomers, according to Leary. And, 65% of depositors are couples. This statistic likely reflects that older adults are still drawn to the life plan community model, which ensures that couples can live together or in close proximity even if care needs increase for one or both of them.
But, boomers and other prospective senior living residents do have very real concerns, Leary emphasized.
“They just bombarded us with questions about how we were going to respond to the pandemic,” she said.
Listening carefully to these questions and addressing them — including by making design and operational changes — has been key to Mather’s sales success in the midst of Covid-19, Leary believes. While pre-sales began prior to Covid-19, deposits continued to grow by about 10% a month during the pandemic, and there were no cancellations.
The design consists of two towers connected at the third-floor level, with 300 independent living apartments, 16 assisted living apartments, 20 memory support suites and 42 skilled nursing suites. The community is dubbed The Mather and is located in Tysons, Virginia.
Changes that were made to the planned design include enhanced HVAC systems with in-duct germicidal ultraviolet (UV) treatments. That is, 100% of return air will be exhausted to the exterior of the building and none will be recirculated internally, while special lamps in the air ducts will kill airborne microbes. Negative pressurization capability will also be in place.
Doors, faucets and other elements of the buildings will incorporate touch-free design. This includes elevators, which residents will be able to control through an app, a card reader or potentially a foot pedal. Each elevator will also have an independent germicidal air purification system.
Mather re-thought how common spaces and amenity spaces will be utilized. The organization almost certainly will eliminate a proposed theater, due to infection control concerns and because residents are beginning to prefer on-demand, in-unit entertainment. In fact, Leary would not be surprised if theater rooms “become extinct.”
Plans for The Mather already included ample outdoor terrace space, some of which now is being utilized to expand dining areas. Mather is considering options for how to use these spaces for dining even during colder months, such as by implementing igloo-like structures that restaurants are beginning to utilize.
“Early on, we were thinking, what are we going to do with all this space? All of a sudden, we know what we’re going to do,” Leary said. “… Dining is no longer a space but a service. We’ll be giving residents plenty of options for their dining experience.”
Of course, these changes and additions to the design come at a cost. The UV system is estimated to cost about $200,000 and the touch-free features are about another $200,000, Leary shared. However, the timing was fortuitous, as Mather is about to confirm its guaranteed maximum price on its construction contract and was able to include all the enhancements related to Covid-19.
More importantly, such enhancements may be table stakes going forward in order to appeal to the rising generation of senior living consumers; in this regard, other senior living providers and developers might want to take a page out of Mather’s playbook.
“I think that we were able to be a bit ahead of the curve because we were already looking at next generation design for The Mather in Tysons,” Leary said.
In addition, she leads a congregate housing working group in Evanston, and participated in a task force related to Covid-19. Through this, she gained insight into the systems and designs being implemented by major hospital systems. And, Mather tapped into the hard-won expertise of other senior living providers in the Novare consortium, particularly those organizations located in early Covid-19 hotspots.
Design enhancements are only one piece of the puzzle when appealing to the baby boomer demographic, and Mather is also bringing a new, wellness-focused operational model to its communities. This model is based on research conducted by the Mather Institute and likely will be unveiled in the near future.
Nearly all the amenity spaces in one of the two towers at The Mather are dedicated to wellness uses, Leary said, and this aligns with consumer expectations. Being able to pursue a wellness-focused lifestyle is among the top three wants of prospective residents who are boomers, Leary said.
“Having a bar is up there, too,” she observed, jokingly.
The Mather is scheduled to open in 2023, and Leary is optimistic that the pandemic will have waned by that time — and that life plan communities will only seem more appealing as senior housing options.
“We’re hearing that people are starved for a sense of community and being engaged with others, and they see that this is an opportunity,” she said.