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With active adult on one side and assisted living on the other, independent living operators have sometimes struggled to define their value proposition to residents.
That issue is fresh on the mind of Priority Life Care CEO Sevy Petras. Last summer, real estate investment trust (REIT) Ventas (NYSE: VTR) transitioned management of eight independent living communities in Florida formerly operated by Atria and Holiday Retirement to Priority Life Care. The operator also manages independent living communities in four states with other partners.
Shortly after, the Fort Wayne, Indiana-based operator got to work upgrading and overhauling the communities. More than that, Petras is currently focused on building a new kind of independent living that will appeal to a new generation of residents.
Underpinning her thinking is the fact that the baby boomers are sure to bring new preferences with them when they move into senior living communities. If operators don’t find new ways to cater to their unique needs and wants, they might find themselves at a disadvantage in the not-too-distant future, even with a higher projected level of demand down the road.
“You can’t really do the same thing for the boomers that you’re doing for the silent generation,” Petras told Senior Housing News. “We really have to start looking at what we can do to make their lives and their longevity in our communities longer.”
Building a new kind of IL
For many years, independent living was a place for relatively active older adults to live and socialize, and operators of these communities invested more in resort-style amenities and engaging programming.
But residents’ health needs have grown more acute in the last 15 years, a trend that only intensified during the pandemic. At the same time, the rise of active adult has given new living options to older adults who don’t have as many care needs.
As a result of that crosscurrent of trends, independent living operators can be left in a somewhat tough position, stuck between two very different parts of the acuity spectrum.
Priority Life Care has surveyed residents at its roughly 60 communities on what they want out of IL and come away with the notion that they desire more than just good food and fun – they also want safety and clinical oversight. They also want a bigger focus on wellness and holistic offerings.
The challenge now for Priority Life Care and other similar operators is what services and amenities will bring the product type into its next iteration in time for the boomers’ arrival.
Priority Life Care and its Chicago-based REIT partner are undertaking renovations aimed at next-generation consumers in the former Holiday by Atria buildings. The operator also is looking to change certain programming, create a new identity for each of the communities and provide alternative resident rate structures to accommodate individual needs and budgets.
But more than that, Petras is trying to build a technology suite to better serve the boomers while offering better clinical oversight. And she believes her findings could help inform the future of the product type.
“I just don’t feel as an industry we are focused on how to utilize technology in these independent living buildings to provide safety,” she said. “Everybody has kind of been like, ‘Well, we’re really only going to do engagement and food, because it’s kind of all we can do.’ But I really feel like there is a way to do this.”
Priority Life Care is still in the midst of building out its new tech offerings for the future, and thus, Petras said she is not ready to share exact plans or reveal potential partners. But she envisions a tech-enabled future for IL where operators have visibility on all goings-on inside a community and can manage them accordingly, and she expects to have more to share in the coming months as plans move farther along.
“It really could be a catalyst for a whole different generation of independent living,” she said.
Strategizing after ‘breakout year’ in 2023
Priority Life Care is fresh off a 2024 planning symposium – headlined by former NFL player Tim Tebow – wherein it launched a new program called Embrace. The program is meant to better onboard residents when and meet them where they are in their lives when they move in.
“It is specifically about making sure that each one of our departments are intertwining and interworking,” Petras said. “And that every single system that we’re using touches, incorporates and talks to every single department.”
The program will begin to analyze and use information that Priority Life Care already collects on residents and stores electronically, with the goal of improving their experience in the community. Applications include chefs using food preferences and allergy information to craft customized meals and staff using health data to offer better care.
“If we have all this information electronically – and we can get it into the hands of the people who are in charge of executing it in a quick, easy, fast way – we can help that ‘embrace’ happen faster,” Petras said. “The first 90 days of a resident moving in become so much easier, and it becomes like home for them faster.”
In 2021 and 2022, Priority Life Care laid a foundation for growth. In 2023, that paid off in the form of a “breakout year” of expansion for the operator, wherein it added more than a dozen communities to its portfolio.
The company also is on track to hit pre-pandemic margins this year thanks to those efforts, and a mere fraction of the company’s total labor budget is currently spent on agency staffing.
In 2024, Petras said Priority Life Care is focused on maintaining quality in the face of that growth. She said she has plans to visit all of the company’s 60 communities not once but twice this year.
That will mean fewer public appearances ahead for Petras, who up until now has been a frequent guest on panels at industry conferences. But it’s all in service of much-needed improvement and evolution for the future.
“I see all this opportunity,” she said. “But I also see the challenge of … how [we are] going to get there.”