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Aging With Choice: Coping with a changing marketplace

January 1, 2009
by Beverly Brandon and Elizabeth Flury
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The inexorable pressure to keep seniors home can present opportunities, not just threats

As aging services providers, your mission is clear: serve the senior community in a way that enables aging with dignity, grace, and security. However, a retirement community cannot serve residents that do not exist. To remain financially and operationally viable, you must continually reevaluate the market context in which these services are provided.

Today's senior is more independent, more active, and more selective than ever before. And, fortunately for him or her, an abundance of aging care alternatives exists where once only limited choices were present. Who is this new senior, and how does your community appeal to this upcoming generation?

Before answering this question, it is first necessary to assess the existing conditions of your community—in short, has it already been affected by the “Aging With Choice” trend? Evaluate your community for the following “warning signs”:

  • Are your independent living units (ILUs) turning over?

    Or are independent living residents staying in their units longer than expected? Operationally, this presents a financial challenge to your community, as new entry fees are needed to maintain your viability. After all, if residents aren't transitioning from ILUs to assisted living units (ALUs), you can't resell the unit.

  • Are your staff spending most of their time marketing assisted living instead of independent living?

    Today's senior doesn't want to move to a retirement community for the lifestyle; rather, they move only out of necessity. How do you change that focus and market that level of care more effectively?

  • Are residents “hiding” in your ILUs?

    Rather than move out of their independent living apartments/cottages when they begin to require additional help, many residents are turning to community-based home care and home health service providers, or are relying on their healthier neighbors for assistance, while attempting to keep a low profile to avoid transfer consideration.

  • Are you experiencing a significant service creep in your more independently oriented units, and are your larger ILUs becoming increasingly difficult to market?

Each of these “warning signs” is symptomatic of a larger change in the senior community, which is transitioning from the “G.I. Generation” to the “Silent Generation.” As a result of this transition, you must change your perspective on how to best provide aging services and maintain your community's long-term success.

Generational contrasts

The G.I. Generation that past marketing efforts have focused on came of age during the Great Depression and the World Wars. They were victorious soldiers, the first astronauts, and an innovative generation of problem solvers who greatly valued a sense of community spirit.

By contrast, the “Silent Generation” now coming of retirement age is highly self-dependent. They defiantly desire to perpetuate their youth and resist aging, and consequently maintain healthy, active, and adventurous lifestyles. This generation does not seek a traditional retirement—many of them are instead seeking personal fulfillment through a second career. Retirement is something they will consider in the early to mid-80s but certainly not in their late 60s or early 70s.

The Silent Generation rejects traditional retirement communities as a lifestyle choice. Their perspective on retirement is significantly different from past generations', and they view traditional retirement communities as a sort of “elder ghetto” that they distinctly want to avoid. They don't desire to grow old with only “old people,” nor do they desire to surrender much of their personal freedom to someone else's idea of how they should live or be cared for.

This generation of aging adults is, however, willing to downsize their homes and look for a community where they can be challenged and engaged, as well as pampered in a luxurious setting, should their finances allow. Age-restricted communities, both rental and equity-based, appear to offer what many in this generation are looking for. In these communities they want to volunteer, to learn, and to live a leisurely lifestyle. Perhaps most significantly, this generation appears willing to move into a traditional retirement housing setting or CCRC based only on actual need.

The Silent Generation's motto embodies the Aging With Choice culture: “I want what I want when I want it, and only when I want it will I be willing to pay for it.”

How does Aging With Choice affect your community, and what steps can you take to mitigate its effects? Traditional responses have included community repositioning of its elements, such as upgrading or building new ILUs, ALUs, Wellness Centers, and “household” modeled skilled nursing facilities (SNFs), and adding newer and more varied dining venues. Yet, these reactions have proved to be less than adequate for adjusting to the culture of Aging With Choice.

As already noted, today's seniors, more than ever, have a plethora of quality housing and healthcare options to assist them in the aging process, resulting in a reduced “need” for the services most traditional retirement communities provide. Aging services are increasingly available outside the confines of the traditional retirement community. If today's senior can receive care within the comfort of his or her own home, why should he or she move into a retirement community?

Accordingly, several alternatives to traditional retirement communities have evolved over the past few years, and they reduce the perceived need for the services your community provides. Although not limited to the following, some of these substitutes include: