Inside the Changemaking Efforts Transforming Senior Living

The past few years have revealed many ways in which the senior living industry must change for the future. In the words of HumanGood CEO John Cochrane, the industry must find a way to “self-disrupt” in the coming years, or risk being left behind.

Though such monumental change is daunting, I think the industry is up to the challenge given the innovative spirit of so many leaders. This has been highlighted in the last week on Senior Housing News.

In our “5 Leaders to Watch in 2022 and Beyond” feature, we spotlighted leaders who recently took on significant leadership roles, are rising through executive ranks or undertaking entrepreneurial ventures. I encourage everyone to check out this list of leaders.


Also this week, we introduced the final members of our 2022 class of Changemakers.

Each year, SHN curates and assembles a list of leaders we believe are driving innovation and change at their organizations and in the industry. This year’s list includes leaders at the forefront of some big changes, such as reaching underserved groups of older adults in the years to come or blurring the lines between senior living and other product types.

And each year, the insights of our Changemakers offer operational blueprints for other operators and infuse new ideas into the industry.


In this week’s exclusive, members-only SHN+ Update, I analyze this year’s Changemakers class and offer key takeaways for the rest of the industry, including:

  • Changemaking efforts that are particularly notable for the future of the industry
  • Additional insights from Changemakers, beyond what was included in their Changemakers Q&As
  • What this year’s list says about the industry’s ability to change for the future

Change worth watching

This year’s Changemakers list includes several leaders managing efforts that I think will help shape the industry’s future.

One example lies with Danette Opaczewski and her efforts redefining the senior living resident experience. As COO of The Wolff Company’s Revel Communities senior housing brand, she is helping to craft a new independent living experience for residents at the company’s 13 locations.

I think the company’s model is one that other operators should pay attention to, particularly those that elevate lifestyle choices and wellness. Opaczewski has a prior hospitality background and a keen eye for detail in operations, and I also believe she is among the leaders at the forefront of the independent living sector’s next evolution.

Opaczewski shared great insights in her Changemakers interview, and offered even more information when I caught up with her at the ASHA conference in Colorado last month. There, she shared with me that the company is working on a new “flex point” program at its community in Las Vegas. The program — which is still in its early stages — will give residents the ability to spend money on services throughout the community, similar to what Watermark Retirement does in its Elite and Elan communities.

Opaczewski told me the effort is not only aimed at giving residents the ability to make their own choices, it also helps to unbundle some of the costs of senior living services. And while Revel is geared more toward affluent residents, she added that it has helped the operator keep rate increases relatively measured in the range of 3%.

“We are not of the belief that you can go in and raise rates 10% for residents in this environment,” she told me in June.

Other efforts to break the mold include a program to allow residents to travel from one community to another, which is dubbed Revel Seasonal Residences. While she admits the program didn’t have a strong start during the earlier days of the Covid pandemic, the company now has 14 residents moving among communities and counting.

Phoenix Senior Living is another provider that is innovating in the independent living space, with its Hammocks brand. Here’s how CEO Jesse Marinko described this model in his Changemakers interview:

“It’s basically like if an active adult met an independent living community and had a baby. You bring all the services of an IL into an active adult environment. You build a clubhouse that is staffed and managed correctly. You build a lot of non-wasted space.”

I was also heartened to see so many of this year’s Changemakers are trying to serve the middle-market — clearly among the industry’s biggest opportunities given the sheer size of the demographic.

Although I think the industry is making some headway on those efforts, I also believe that the Covid-19 pandemic has derailed some of its progress. And as a result, I think senior living operators will have to develop truly new and unique models if they hope to reach the middle-market — and soon. Several of our 2022 Changemakers are among those leading the way.

2Life, for example, has forged a hybrid model that aims to lower rates through resident volunteerism along with partnerships with social services and other health and senior care providers. What I admire most about 2Life CEO Amy Schectman is the passion she feels for making senior living more affordable, and the passion with which she undertakes that mission. And she was not shy about those passions in her Changemakers interview this year:

“I think leaving out the middle-market from optimal aging is morally reprehensible — that’s risky,” she told me.

Merrill Gardens takes a different approach in its Truewood by Merrill brand. But this is another model that I think could meet the middle-market, with resident rates targeted to be about $3,000 to $3,500 per month through a mix of scaled-down amenities and a more efficient universal workforce inside the community.

Meanwhile, Northbridge is also innovating in the middle market with project through its HallKeen venture in the D.C. market — one reason why CEO Jim Coughlin and President Wendy Nowokunski are among our 2022 Changemakers.

Contrarian spirit

I remember earlier this year talking with 2022 Changemaker Dale Watchowski, CEO of operator American House Senior Living Communities and its parent company REDICO. During our SHN+ TALKS discussion in January, he shared with me that the company strives to be a “contrarian player” with regard to new development.

“If right now development is more difficult, what we’re going to do is find a way in which to do development, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” he told me in January.

Looking across the other Changemakers, I see more of that contrarian spirit in action. And I think that in order to be a maker of change, you must also take risks and go against the grain — at least once in a while.

I see that spirit alive in the way Treplus and CEO Jane Arthur Roslovic are building out a portfolio of active adult communities that look less like senior living communities and more like single-family neighborhoods. I see it in Phoenix Senior Living CEO Jesse Marinko’s observation that senior living is still a young industry, and so cannot already become stuck in its ways. I see it in Benchmark CEO and 2022 Changemaker Tom Grape’s plans to expand into the Washington, D.C. market, which lies outside of the company’s old and familiar territory in the Northeast.

And I also see it in the way that long-tenured leaders are still pushing for change and are willing to identify where the industry is not changing fast enough. LCS CEO Joel Nelson, for instance, warns that senior living has to change faster with regard to technology adoption and addressing workforce changes.

Looking ahead, I hope to see more innovative ideas related to tech and workforce as we highlight changemaking efforts in the future. In no particular order, I also would like to see more evolution in the middle-market; more intergenerational projects; and new models that radically change what the industry has to offer, to expand penetration rates.

Given the leaders we’ve highlighted recently, I am optimistic that these and other changemaking efforts are already being undertaken by other visionaries and calculated risk-takers in the sector.