Wellness, Dining Innovations Show Senior Living Industry Can Go Bolder

The senior living consumer base is evolving, and the historically sluggish pace of senior living innovation must speed up to meet new expectations and desires. Luxury is being redefined, palates are becoming more discerning, and coveted younger residents are more sophisticated about what “wellness” means and how their living environment is involved.

These were among the biggest takeaways from the recent Senior Housing News DISHED/WELLNESS event in Atlanta, which drew senior living companies from across the country.

Faced with a new generation of incoming senior living residents on one side and operational difficulties on the other, the senior living industry is in a crucial period. What operators do now could mean the difference between recovery and stagnation ahead — and that is why I think now is not the time to rest on laurels.


In this exclusive, members-only SHN+ update, I analyze our recent DISHED/WELLNESS event in Atlanta and offer my top takeaways, including:

  • Resident preferences are only getting more nuanced with time
  • Senior living industry providers can go even bolder in dining
  • Wellness is now more than just a “feature”

Operators can go bolder on dining

The incoming baby boomers are sure to want more than the “three hots and a cot” that the previous generation was happy with. That is no secret.

But based on what DISHED/WELLNESS attendees shared, it seems like that trend is accelerating, and that residents are bringing with them an ever-lengthening list of preferences for what they want to eat.


“They want quality food and quality service — and they want all that tied up with a lot of value for their dollar,” said Tate Stewart, senior vice president of operations for Thrive Senior Living. “They want to understand that it’s priced competitively.”

To me, that cross-current of wanting quality, uniqueness and value is a big and potentially still-untapped opportunity for many operators. Although I’ve seen the industry make big strides toward this in recent years, commentary during DISHED/WELLNESS tells me there is still more room to innovate and experiment.

Arbor Company VP of Dining Services Ryan King has been in the senior living industry for more than a decade. His biggest observation in that time is that residents are embracing more international cuisine.

While pot roast, fettuccine alfredo and fried chicken are still hot items in senior living dining in 2023, King said many residents have a much bigger appetite for healthier, fresh cuisine, and for new ways of preparing it.

It’s a point that was underscored pointedly by Anjan Mitra, head of innovation for Priya Living. Given that Priya serves many South Asian residents, the company is going full-bore on the cuisine of this region, including through the addition of more vegetarian options. And the expectation is that this will be a selling point not only for South Asian residents but for a broader consumer base with sophisticated palates.

Residents are also more accepting of new ways of delivering food. For example, Shelburne, Vermont-based Wake Robin during the pandemic adopted wheeled carts with food that can be doled out to assisted living residents.

Although Wake Robin started the practice with the goal of aiding staffing, Director of Dining Services Kate Hays said the practice had the unintended effect of giving residents the feeling of tableside meal service.

“We can use it for independent living as a dessert cart or for other fun stuff tableside — and it’s been really successful,” Hays said at DISHED.

Luxury dining is another potentially untapped avenue for senior living operators, with the caveat that doing so is not easy. Sunrise Vice President of Dining and Programming Services Caitlin Rogers drew a distinction between “excellence” in many dining programs and true luxury services, like the kind offered in Sunrise’s New York City luxury high-rises.

“Excellence is something that all of our consumers demand, whether or not they’re paying a luxury price tag or not,” she said. “Luxury is the services, the amenities … that we can offer, and really anticipating [residents’] needs.”

And for Lisa Swafford, Galerie Living’s vice president of strategy and business development, luxury is a “feeling,” not an item to be bought, sold or rented.

Looking across the industry, I see many operators that say they are luxury, but relatively few that actually embody it. Based on what I heard at DISHED/WELLNESS, I think residents are actually getting better at telling the difference between excellence and luxury.

Steve Nygren, the founder and CEO of the pioneering wellness community called Serenbe, spoke about the problems that arise from senior living residents’ lack of purchasing power. He visited upscale senior living communities while planning a new 7-acre development at Serenbe, with offerings meant to enable aging in place.

Even in beautiful communities with multiple dining venues, residents expressed dissatisfaction with dining, which also undercut the morale of culinary professionals in these communities. The problem, Nygren believes, is that in typical, all-inclusive meal packages, the various venues do not have to actually compete for residents’ business from meal to meal.

Nygren is seeking to address this in the new Serenbe development by taking an approach that is starting to catch on more broadly in senior living, with unbundled services that residents pay for on a more a la carte basis. Making this shift is not easy — Watermark Chairman David Freshwater previously spoke to SHN about the challenges in teaching senior living associates how to “merchandise.” Something as simple as having a complete menu with prices listed at a community’s coffee shop may not come naturally, and setting prices and changing customer services approaches add to the complexity.

But however difficult, the bottom line is that I think senior living operators can be bolder with regard to their senior living dining programs, and if they’re not careful, they might be surprised with what their residents will ask for in the near-future.

Wellness now more than a ‘feature’

It was not long ago that wellness entered the senior living lexicon. In 2023, I think wellness is not as much a potential differentiator for senior living operators as it is a simple necessity of doing business.

Maxwell Group CEO and President Ben Thompson said the company thinks of wellness-forward amenities and services — like fitness classes, pools and gyms — as more than just a “feature” in the company’s communities.

Offering these kinds of services and amenities is nothing new in senior living. But Thompson’s point is that residents are not only interested in a community’s amenities or services, but also how they can enable them to live longer, healthier lives.

In other words, wellness should not be looked at as mere bells and whistles, or as pampering — it has a purpose.

“We spend a lot of time talking about the actual outcomes and effects, not just what we have,” Thompson said during a panel discussion on wellness.

Part of the reason the industry is moving in this direction relates to the growth of value-based care and coordination of care and services.

For too long, senior living communities have been “siloed” from the rest of the health care industry, according to Generations, LLC Executive Chairman Chip Gabriel. But “​​most of the country is moving towards a Medicare Advantage type of payment system,” and it would behoove operators to learn how they can participate in that before it’s too late.

But older adults “ don’t have to live with us to have access to our communities,” Gabriel added. I think that is a crucial distinction and important for the industry’s future.

Wellness is a big and nebulous concept, so I think it’s easy to get lost in the weeds or think one needs state-of-the-art fitness facilities to be part of the ongoing wellness revolution. But the business models of other companies on display during the event showed there is an opportunity to bring the outside in with regard to senior living wellness.

For example, Atlanta-based Holbrook has multiple membership models under which residents at the company’s communities can access services and amenities including tai chi, barre, strength, balance and aquatics classes.

But the wellness programming doesn’t stop at the community’s front door. Holbrook about three months ago launched another membership model that is external-facing — and Jack Mackenzie Miller, Holbrook’s vice president of business development, said doing so was a good move.

Mackenzie Miller said that the company has noticed otherwise active residents are now moving in at a later age than they used to, likely because of the proliferation of such communities nationwide. By offering an external membership, Holbrook has been able to reach those prospective residents before its competitors do.

“The 55-plus communities … may have a pretty basic clubhouse, but our communities have much, much more than that,” he said. “So we’re tapping into that 55-plus market, and bringing them in as kind of like a pre-transition to our buildings.”

At the end of the day, there are many operators being bold right now. Gabriel, for example, is involved in a plan with Formation Capital and other partners to create a new wellness-driven senior living model rooted in value-based care. Maxwell Group similarly is going bold by creating new hybrid product types for senior housing, and companies like Serenbe are creating new developments with older adults in mind — and the list goes on.

And senior living providers that are not being bold right now, in some way — particularly with regard to dining and wellness — will be competing with these innovators in the years to come.

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