Change is inevitable. What senior living operators can control is how they deal with it.
As the industry stands at the precipice of a new year, senior living companies are grappling with a new slate of challenges that are different from any time before 2020.
In the coming years, the baby boomers will bring with them new desires and wants for senior living. At the same time, technology is rapidly changing, with AI and other tools quickly gaining favor in the quest to collect and analyze ever-growing datasets. And staffing is still not where many senior living operators hoped it would be by this time in 2023.
Senior living operators including Priority Life Care, Commonwealth Senior Living and Harbor Retirement Associates (HRA) are coping with a fast-changing landscape by embracing change and implementing forward-thinking practices across their organizations. All three companies are led by leaders from the 2023 class of Senior Housing News’ Changemakers list, which was released earlier this year.
“We’re really feeling the headwinds, but we’re also getting a lot of tailwinds, which is a unique space for us in senior living,” Priority Life Care CEO Sevy Petras said during a recent Senior Housing News webinar. “Coming out of the pandemic, we were forced to embrace changes we knew were coming. But as an industry, we haven’t always been the most nimble at adjusting our sails for the winds of change.”
Data a ‘headwind and a tailwind’
With margins still compressed and occupancy still recovering, senior living operators in 2023 are walking an operational razor’s edge between success and failure. In recent years, some senior living operators have embraced data collection and analysis as a way to track their progress and pivot accordingly where needed.
Fort Wayne, Indiana-based Priority Life Care’s middle-market operational model is made possible by an intense focus on data.
Petras likens the current period of change to when cell phones and the internet changed every aspect of senior living community operations. By that she means she expects to see fast changes in data collection and tech in the years to come — and operators must keep up.
“I feel like it’s a headwind and a tailwind, because it’s going to push us along but it’s also going to bring some serious challenges,” she added during the webinar.
Like other operators, HRA had to “jump in with two feet” with regard to tech adoption when the pandemic hit in 2020. That stands in contrast to before the pandemic, when the industry was much slower to embrace new changes, according to HRA President and CEO Sarabeth Hanson.
Over the last year, financing has been harder to source due to turbulence in capital markets, among other pressures. Senior living operators can still find new capital sources, but to win over big partners, they will need to do a better job at showing their work, according to Commonwealth Senior Living CEO Earl Parker. And that is only going to drive the need for reliable data, he said.
“A lot of that comes back to data and figuring out what we should be measuring,” Parker said.
Charlottesville, Virginia-based Commonwealth is working with partners like Yardi to build dashboards with which to better keep watch on operations, he added.
Of course, even the best data is useless if it can’t be utilized in a timely manner and shared with the right people. One major challenge in the industry right now is getting different data platforms like CRMs and EHRs to communicate. For example, while senior living residents might move up through the care continuum as they age, data on their preferences or health needs may not always follow them.
“There are all these different platforms, none of them talk,” Petras said. “If you want to get them to talk, it’s very expensive or it’s wonky. Or they don’t talk very well, because it’s not apples-to-apples.”
That is why senior living tech companies including Yardi are working on better ways to increase data flow across senior living company departments. The company has announced a new iteration of its Voyager platform with exactly that in mind.
All of this is occurring as the industry undergoes a “digital transformation,” Fil Southerland, director of healthcare solutions and senior living at Yardi.
“Something we’re focused on as we shift to this new product line is really facilitating those roles across multiple departments and streamlining that so that you can capture all the necessary data and then act on it,” Southerland said during the webinar.
Among the companies seeing the changes and benefits from a more unified technology front is Harbor Retirement Associates (HRA). The company has worked with Yardi to bring its software platforms together “under one umbrella,” which is reportedly changing the experience for end-users through clearer communication.
A way that data collection can continue to grow, adapt and benefit the senior housing sector is by expanding to include information from hospitals and medical record systems, Parker said. Looking ahead, there is also hope the information gathered when a resident moves in for programming purposes will be housed under one system, allowing teams to have the full picture of a resident faster.
“I think that’s a barrier that’s going to be broken down at some point,” Parker said.
As the baby boomers loom large over the industry, they are bringing with them big changes in what and how they want to eat and where they want to live. But the generation is also bringing another big change — the need for more affordable senior living services.
The latest data shows that almost 12 million older Americans will not be able to afford senior living at today’s costs by 2033 without more affordable options. For the public at-large, that number represents a massive challenge. Though it is no doubt a challenge for senior living operators, it is also an opportunity.
Petras sees the industry as moving quickly to meet the middle-market opportunity.
“I think we’ve shined a big, bright light on the fact we’ve got to do something,” Petras said. “I feel confident that while we don’t yet have the right keys identified to address it all, we are getting there.”
Operators can better meet the middle-market by embracing new payment sources, such as those found in value-based care. Petras noted that senior living operators have a big opportunity to demonstrate to payers how assisted living communities can keep costs lower for residents than skilled nursing facilities.
“It is a mission behind the margin,” Petras said. “I am going to be able to move my margin without taking something away.”
A way to help keep resident rates lower circles back to the better implementation of technology within communities and focusing on care, Parker said. The hope for increased technology use will be reducing the labor costs while maintaining the level of quality and care.
Another big change is that baby boomers are bringing with them new preferences for dining and drinking. That has led operators like HRA to rethink how senior living dining occurs in some ways — and who it is for.
The company worked in recent years with food and beverage consultants to design spaces that provide “choice in a safe environment,” the two big “keys” to meeting the needs and wants of the boomers, Hanson said.
HRA created multiple dining venues where residents can eat according to their own schedule, from high-end to casual settings.
HRA also is slinging senior living fare to the general public, something that in previous years many operators only dreamed of doing. The company is experimenting in certain urban markets with selling food such as pizza and wings from its communities through apps like GrubHub and DoorDash, but branded under a different name. The concept is also known as a ghost kitchen.
“We allow people to experience who we are without knowing it,” Hanson said.“It’s really going to help with those foodies and boomers that are looking to move in and want a lot of choice.”
Hanson added: “We’re testing that now. We don’t know where we’ll end up, but we’re excited and it doesn’t take a lot to get started.”
Hanson also noted the incoming generation of boomers simply has different preferences than those being served today, and those preferences are noted to be a change coming in a matter of years.
“They don’t want a cup of black coffee. They want to go to a barista and order an expensive cup of coffee … made exactly the way they want it,” she said.