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Rethinking senior living models

March 15, 2013
by Leslie G. Moldow FAIA, LEED AP
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In the wake of the recent Great Recession our world has changed, specifically concerning the senior living industry. Capital has become largely unavailable and the next generation of seniors—the plentiful baby boomers—generally wants different services and housing models from those offered to their parents. To keep up with the changes, the ways in which existing communities operate and provide services must be reconsidered, and many organizations will need to rethink and realign how they meet their mission.

Outmoded communities can refurbish by simply splashing on a new coat of paint, installing new carpeting and ordering new furnishings. This type of facelift helps over the short term, but it does not specifically address the new realities that many face as senior living providers.

Communities can restore and renovate by adding a number of useful new spaces such as cafés, movie theaters and exercise rooms as well as altering unit plans by combining apartments and even relocating certain services for greater convenience among residents. This will make existing models more relevant and user friendly, but such changes fail to address the larger underlying issues.

Currently, senior living providers of continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) only serve between 2 and 7 percent of the age- and income-eligible target market. According to AARP’s 2011 Boomer Housing Study, nearly 84 percent of those surveyed expressed a strong preference to stay in the places and communities they have called home. Whether this is a realistic expectation or denial of their future need for care is irrelevant. Our industry must find ways to serve the approximate 93 percent of seniors who do not embrace the traditional CCRC model. We must meet their expectations of aging in place, feeling at home and staying connected within a vibrant community setting.


So what does the baby boomer generation expect and what models exist that can meet their expectations? While there is no single answer, this generation wants responses tailored to their needs. The good news is senior living providers can develop more options, think more innovatively and create more diverse market niches than ever before. There need not be one response; we need to think differently. We need to restructure our projects, develop new partnerships, think beyond our property lines and experiment with new concepts. Both existing and new senior living communities need to be connected in a multitude of ways to the life that exists beyond their walls.

The suburban model for senior living, self-contained on about 30 acres, is unsustainable and increasingly undesirable in many parts of the United States; most seniors want to be part of something interconnected. There are at least two viable options for shifting the existing CCRC model.

The first is to create an “inside-out community.” Take all the functions and features that are typically used exclusively by senior living community residents and re-situate them along the area’s perimeter, so that the greater community in which the CCRC is located can make use of key amenities as well. According to Maria Dwight of Gerontological Services, Inc., a specialty senior living market research firm, “Amortizing the fixed overhead of the facility and services costs to the broader community is a win-win for everyone. It reduces duplication of operating expenses, and infuses the CCRC with new energy and opportunities. It is good business and good marketing.”

This “inside-out” approach might involve turning the community dining hall into a full-service restaurant or the café into a coffeehouse that attracts more than just resident clientele. Perkins Eastman’s interior architecture for Baptist Housing Ministry does this with a new residential care facility in Saanich, British Columbia, Canada, called The Heights at Mount View. The facility’s ground floor will be dedicated to the neighborhood at large, replete with an Internet café, children’s play area and art gallery, community lounge and centralized town hall.

The second model is demonstrated by our work with Dallas-based care provider C.C. Young. Its community center serves both residents and the greater community. By partnering and working with more than 60 organizations, C.C. Young has created—from scratch, as opposed to enhancing and repositioning existing resources—a series of inviting programs within a senior center venue that attracts the broader community. This integration of the community with senior residents helps meet the socialization needs of all, while providing opportunities for more partnerships.

C.C. Young’s main building, developed on the edge of the community center’s campus, includes a library, art room, café, music hall and other amenities. The venue has benefitted from numerous program partnerships with organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Texas and Faith Artists, which have helped provide relevant activities for seniors on campus and in the greater community.